TEMPE, Ariz. -- In the regular season, they don't get much bigger than this: No. 1 versus No. 2.
Such a battle will be taking place this Thursday night at Oceanside Ice Arena in Tempe, when the undefeated Arizona State Sun Devils host the top-ranked and defending national champion Minot State Beavers.
ASU had a bit of a scare over the weekend during their series against Colorado. The Buffaloes came into Tempe as little more than an afterthought, as they were among the worst teams in the ACHA to that point.
However, thanks to an incredible goaltending performance from Alex Palumbo, Colorado mounted a third period rally on Friday to put the game in doubt before ASU escaped with a 3-2 win. The Sun Devils returned to a measure of normalcy on Saturday with a 7-0 win.
“They were just lethargic. I think they were complacent," said Sun Devil head coach Greg Powers. "That’s just not acceptable. We’re beyond that now."
While some may suspect that the result of that series, as well as the team's underwhelming win last week over Division II NAU, could be a sign of ASU playing down to the competition, Powers is not one of them.
“It’s not going to become a trend, because I won’t let it," said Powers. "All you can do as a coach is chalk up those efforts, make them a learning experience, and make sure that your guys don’t repeat them. With the way we came out on Saturday, I’m pretty convinced they learned their lesson and it won’t happen again.”
However, despite the wins, the all-too-close nature of the games caused ASU to slip in the latest ACHA rankings, dropping from No. 1 to No. 2, with Minot State reclaiming their postion on top.
With the lessons on complacency hopefully learned, the Sun Devils now turn their focus on taking on the defending champs.
The Last Time...
These two teams met three times last season, with the Beavers winning all three. They eeked out a 3-2 win in Tempe in early January. During a two-game series in North Dakota the next month, they topped the Sun Devils 4-3 in a shootout before taking them down in regulation the next night 4-2.
The Scouting Report on Minot State
The defending national champions were stunned last weekend by Williston State, a who gave the Beavers their first loss of the year during a seven-round shootout. Despite the loss, Minot State (9-0-1) regained the No. 1 ranking and remains one of the heavy favorites for the ACHA title.
“Good team, very deep, very talented," Powers said of the Beavers. "They lost a lot from last year, so they are different. They are younger. That brings a totally different dynamic to their roster. They lost some pretty good firepower up front, but they replaced it with some very talented young guys. So far, they haven’t had any major issues. They are a good team and tough to beat on any given night. I think that they will still be the best team that we’ve played so far this season."
The Sun Devils on the Attack
No team in the nation has as much offensive firepower as the Sun Devils, and few teams are as adept at shutting down the opposition as the Beavers.
ASU features the nation's top scorer in Kale Dolinski, and they also have three others in the top 25: Brian McGinty (26 points), Colin Hekle, and Liam Norris (each with 20).
"Kale is really leading the way. Colin is coming on strong. Brian McGinty is having a great year. Danny McAuliffe is having a great year," said Powers. "Four of our top five guys are seniors, and that’s how it should be. I'm really happy with those guys, and they just need to find a away to keep it going.”
Beyond their production, Powers has praised the veterans for their leadership in helping bring along the newcomers to ASU's roster. The Sun Devils have 10 players with 10 or more points on the year, with five of them being rookies.
"It’s exactly what I hoped would happen with all of the talented young guys we have," said Powers. "That’s what I wanted in bringing in so many new guys is for them to learn from these guys."
ASU's fast-paced offensive attack will face it's biggest test thus far on Thursday.
The Beaver have one of the ACHA's best and most experienced goaltenders in senior Wyatt Waselenchuk. He currently leads the league in shutouts with four and is second to ASU's Robert Levin in save percentage at .958. In order to get past Waselenchuk, once a recruiting target of Powers to ASU, the Sun Devils will need to strike early.
"He’s a kid that if you can get to him early, you can really get to him," Powers said. "If you let him play downhill, and get hot, and get confident, then you are in trouble. But if you can get to Wyatt early, you can break him. We have to find a way to get up on those guys early and pop a couple of quick ones.”
ASU will also need to battle through a tough-minded and fundamentally sounds group of defensemen that limit the quality scoring chances on Waselenchuk, and an aggressive corps of forwards that excel on the forecheck.
“What Minot does so well, and where they really separated themselves last year, is blocking so many shots," said Powers. "They are a very selfless team. They do whatever it takes to get a win. They’re not pretty. They play good defensively sound hockey."
The Sun Devils on Defense
No team in the ACHA does a better job of keeping the puck out of their net than the Sun Devils. Over the season's first 16 games, ASU has allowed just 18 goals.
While Powers would not yet reveal who will be in net on Thursday night, although he says he "leaning pretty strongly in one direction". Regardless of his decision, he will have two great options in senior Joe D'Elia (7-0-0, 1.29 GAA, .930 save percentage) and freshman Robert Levin (8-0-0, 0.92, .961). Both have been outstanding throughout the year.
A big reason for the success in goal is the play on the blueline, where the defensive group has excelled despite several key departures from last year. Key newcomers such as Alex Temby, Drew Newmeyer, and Jarod Levos have integrated seamlessly with veterans like Brett Blomgren and Jordan Young to wreak havoc on the opposition. They've kept the shot counts low and the quality chances even lower.
“They’ve been amazing," Powers said of his defensemen. "I knew going in that we’re not going to have an issue scoring with all of our talent. That end will take care of itself, but if you can build it from the backend out—goaltending and defense—the rest will take care of itself. So far, it has. We’re going to need to play like that this Thursday too.
They'll need to be at the top of their games as they face the highest scoring team in the nation. Minot State comes in averaging an ACHA-best 6.3 goals per game.
Like ASU, the Beavers have a wealth of players who are key contributors to the offense, and are led by two rookies. Jeremy Johnson leads the club with 14 goals and 21 points, while speedy Cole Olson has chipped in 16 points (seven goals).
To counter the well-rounded attack,
"They are opportunistic on the offensive end," Powers said. "Our guys have to take a page out of their book and do all the little things. For the most part, we’ve been doing it. Sticks in passing lanes and doing all the little things from a conceptual standpoint in the defensive zone that make it frustrating. If we continue to play the way that we have been, we’ll be fine.”
While both of these teams are very evenly matched, there is no question about one thing.
"Whoever wins on Thursday is going to be the clear cut No. 1," said Powers.
This clash of titans will help set the tone and direction for the remainder of the season for both teams, yet despite the hype surrounding the game, Powers feels that his Sun Devils are in a great place mentally.
“I don’t think there is any pressure," said Powers. "I think there is genuine excitement about playing the defending national champs. We only get one crack at them this year. They are the champs. They are the ones with the rings and coming off the big season. If you ask me, all the pressure is on Minot. We’re trying to get what they have."
The Sun Devils will also have the benefit of home ice, and what is expected to be a large crowd filling Oceanside Arena.
Ultimately, while this is just another game on the schedule not even to the halfway mark, Powers believes this is a measuring stick for an ASU squad thinking national title or bust.
"I’m excited to see how our guys really embrace this opportunity to knock off the defending national champs," said Powers. We anticipate having a big crowd, and a rowdy crowd. We’re really excited to see what our guys are made of.”
Sun Devils in the Stats
- ASU leads the nation in defense (1.1 goals allowed per game) and is second in scoring (6.2 goals per game).
- Kale Dolinski leads the ACHA in points (35) and assists (24).
- Robert Levin leads the ACHA in goals against average (0.92) and save percentage (.961) and is second in shutouts (3), to Waselenchuk's four.
- Brian McGinty is 5th in the ACHA in scoring (26 points).
- Liam Norris is 4th in the ACHA in assists (15).
- Colin Hekle is tied for 3rd in the ACHA in goals (14).
- Hekle and Sean Murphy are tied with Rhode Island's Dillon Balsamo with four game-winning goals.
The puck drops on Thursday at 8 p.m. at Oceanside Ice Arena in Tempe. Tickets are just $10 for adults, $5 for children and can be purchased here. It is also one of the team's beer nights.