TEMPE, Ariz. -- In sports, cliches are often just empty words. However, there are some that carry significant weight, and then there are those backed up by facts, such as "defense wins championships".
On Thursday, the 2014 ACHA National Tournament kicks off, and Arizona State enters play as the No. 1 seed as they aim for the program's first national championship. While the Sun Devils have earned a well deserved reputation as an offensive powerhouse (an ACHA-best 5.8 goals per game), one hard-to-ignore trend suggests that it's their play on the other end of the ice that will decide their fate.
Over the prior three years, the nation's top-ranked defensive team also took home the ACHA national championship. A quick check of the stat book shows that ASU led the nation in total defense this season, allowing a paltry 1.4 goals per game.
While the Sun Devils are hoping that promising streak extends to four, they are not alone in bringing quality defensive hockey into the tournament. Each of the ACHA's top nine defensive teams—and 14 of the top 16—in fewest goals allowed per game made the 20-team tournament.
It may not be as thrilling as a beautiful breakaway goal, but a well-timed poke check or forcing a skater wide may be just as important in deciding this year's champion.
"Clearly it does win championships," ASU head coach Greg Powers said. "You can’t sugarcoat those numbers. Three years in a row, the top defensive team in the tournament has walked out with national championships."
The secret to ASU's success in their own zone lies in a total team commitment to every area of the ice. The Sun Devil offense often dominates possession, keeping the puck and pressure on the opposition. ASU's forwards are relentless with their forechecks, and the Sun Devil defensemen are sound in their techniques, which in turn limit the number of high-percentage chances on their dynamic duo of goaltenders.
Simply put, if you score a goal on ASU, you earned it.
“We play very sound defensive hockey," Powers said. "Our defensive numbers are so good because our puck possession is so dominant. We play with the belief that if we are possessing the puck and making smart plays, then it’s hard for the other team to score. From a systematic standpoint, we play more of a structured system approach in our defensive zone with our guys backchecking than anywhere else on the ice. It’s taken four years to build a team around those concepts, and that’s what we’ve done and it’s working really working."
Indeed it has been a four-year process for the Sun Devils. In 2010-2011, ASU ranked 16th in the ACHA in defense. As Powers' system gained further traction, that ranking improved to the point where when ASU made a run to the Final Four last year, they had cracked the top 10. Now, no team fields a tougher defense.
One of biggest reasons for ASU's success this year has come between the pipes with the addition of goaltender Robert Levin.
The freshman has been nothing short of spectacular, leading the ACHA in goals against average (1.12), save percentage (.956) and shutouts (six) while posting an 18-1-0 record.
“He’s exceeded every expectation I’ve had," said Powers. "I knew he was going to be really good, and I knew that he was going to be the future of the program from a goaltending standpoint. Never in a million years did I expect him to come in and put up video game numbers, and that’s what he’s done."
He's also not the only netminder that's stymied the opposition this year.
Senior Joe D'Elia was ASU's starter last year, and he as been effective while splitting time with Levin. D'Elia has a 14-1-0 record while posting the ACHA's third-best GAA mark at 1.80. After a rough end to last season, Powers attributes D'Elia's resurgence to Levin's presence.
"He’s a better senior year than he did as a junior," said Powers. "A lot of that has to do with bringing in a kid like Robert to push. They pushed each other back and forth, and they were a great tandem all year. Last year, it’s easy for a kid to get complacent at times when he doesn’t have any internal competition. This year Joe did, and he responded."
Powers is not yet saying which goalie will get the start in ASU's first tournament game on March 7, but he did say that "unless we win that first game in a dogfight 7-6 and the guy in net doesn’t play well", he will stick with one guy throughout the team's run.
With Levin and D'Elia, it's hard to Powers to make a wrong choice. On one hand, D'Elia offers a veteran presence, having been the goaltender on Davenport's 2010-2011 national championship team. While some may balk at putting a program's hopes on the shoulders of a freshman like Levin, Powers has no such fears.
“He’s been in some pretty dicey and intense situations all year," Powers said of Levin. "I’m not concerned about that at all. He’s mentally ready for this moment, and I have no doubt that he can perform in it.”
Regardless of who gets the nod, they will have the luxury of having ASU's group of defensemen playing in front of them. Despite being a very young group (three freshmen, two sophomores), the blueliners have Powers' full confidence.
“I think they are going to do well," Powers said. You have (Alex) Temby and Jordy (Jordan Young) who played over in Italy on a big stage on Olympic ice against much tougher competition than we are going to see at the ACHA National Tournament. I think they’ll be ready to go and that they will bring that experience to our guys. You have (Brett) Prechel there as a senior, and (Brett) Blomgren is a nice, calm presence. Drew Newmeyer is so calm and cool. He’s a kid that steps up in the big moments. Jarrod Levos has been great all year."
The pieces are in place for the Sun Devils, now it's time to put it all together on the ACHA's biggest stage after coming up just shy a year ago.
Last year, ASU—then the No. 2 seed—advanced to the Final Four, where they squared off against 9-seeded Lindenwood. However, the Lions stunned the Sun Devils with a four-goal first period en route to a 6-4 win.
The lessons of that defensive breakdown are not lost on this year's Sun Devils, serving as motivation.
“When something like that happens, you have to use it to your advantage to make sure it doesn’t happen again," Powers said. "You can’t blink at Nationals. Every shift, you have to be locked in and focused. If you take a couple of shifts off, your season is over."
ASU's first game will be against the winner of the opening round game between Lindenwood, now a 17-seed, and 16th seeded Rhode Island. Should they get by that game, it will only get tougher.
"Our guys are licking their chops thinking there is a good potential chance that we are going to play Lindenwood," Powers said. "After that, what a great opportunity we are going to have no matter who we play. If it’s Delaware and playing them on home ice at Nationals in front of a packed house. Or even better, have the chance to knock off the defending national champions in Minot. The path isn’t easy, but the path is certainly one that, if you get through it, is really rewarding."
One of the big challenges at the tournament is the format, which puts contenders in a position to play as many as four games in four days. Such a grueling grind can take a severe toll on any team, especially on the defensive end where so much is based in hustle and effort.
But this is not a concern for ASU, arguably the ACHA's deepest and most talented team.
More hockey? Bring it.
"I wish everyone would play four games in a row, because we have a deep team. Nobody can match our depth. If we’re lucky enough to get to the National Final on Tuesday, then there’s a good chance we’ll be playing a team that’s playing their third game in four days, and maybe their fourth in four days. I’ll take that all day with our depth and the way we can roll four lines at people.
"The more hockey in a short amount of time, the better off we are.”
Perhaps that will be the next cliche to become reality for the Sun Devils.