After grabbing their first victory of the new campaign last Saturday, the Huskies return to the Matthews Arena ice this weekend for a two-game set against the Arizona State Sun Devils.
Yes, those Sun Devils.
Arizona State (ASU) announced just less than two years ago that the school planned to transition its American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) club to a full-blown NCAA Division 1 program. After keeping a full ACHA schedule in 2014-2015, the Sun Devils played a hybrid schedule last season against ACHA and NCAA competition. Unsurprisingly, there were some growing pains – a whole lot of them. ASU went 3-22 against D1 teams, with its only wins coming against Alaska and Lake Superior State.
Still, this was an important step for a program in its infancy. With the 2016-2017 season comes another important step: the team’s first full NCAA D1 schedule. The Sun Devils hoped that they would play this season out without a conference then join the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) for 2017-18, but the NCHC decided to hold off on expansion for the time being. As a result, ASU will play their first true D1 season as an independent club with at least one more year to come before they find a home.
The fact the Sun Devils made a serious bid to join one of the top conferences in college hockey at this stage of the program’s growth is impressive. This shouldn’t be a surprise, though, considering the school’s fanbase, its resources, and its association with the PAC-12. What is more impressive, at least in this writer’s opinion, is the aggressiveness and commitment the school is showing towards becoming a top-flight program. ASU has already played two teams ranked in the USCHO.com top 20 and has another 7 on the way. In fact, 10 of the Sun Devils’ first 11 games are against ranked clubs. The team will also play other Hockey East, Big Ten, and ECAC programs such as New Hampshire, Penn State, Colgate, Brown, RPI, and UMass.
On top of this daunting schedule, four Sun Devils home games this year will be played at Gila River Arena, home of the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes. Two of these took place this past weekend against Air Force. Despite a three-game losing streak to start the season (including an opening night that saw Notre Dame drop 9 goals on them), the Sun Devils bounced back to beat Air Force in the second game last weekend, 5-2. This was the program’s first NCAA D1 win at home and first ever win over a ranked opponent (Air Force was #18 in the USCHO.com poll at the time). ASU still has two more games at Gila River Arena, where they will play Harvard and Michigan in the upcoming weeks.
ASU is clearly committed to developing a mindset and culture that will compete at the sport’s highest level. The talent, however, is not quite there yet. Just one player last year had more than 5 goals (forward Jordan Masters, 8). The team save percentage was .894. They were outscored 116 to 46 and outshot 1096 to 690. The roster does have some interesting pieces. BU transfer Robbie Baillargeon joins as a graduate student for this season, with 3 points in 4 games already. Freshman forward Tyler Busch, one of 20 underclassmen on the roster (just 7 juniors and seniors), already has 4 goals. Masters will look to build on last season’s 22 points as will defenseman Joey Raats on his 15 points. And don’t forget old friend Ryan Belonger (Northeastern 2012-2014), back for his senior season at ASU.
Long-term, ASU D1 hockey is a fascinating possibility. If the Sun Devils are successful long-term, it could have an enormous ripple effect on the sport. Could other PAC-12 teams jump in? Could we see other power conferences join the fun? ASU could be the starting point for major growth in college hockey.
For now, the Sun Devils are what they are: a bottom-of-the-Pairwise club with little talent but big dreams. While on paper this may seem to be an “easier” test than Bentley last weekend, anything can happen in college hockey. Northeastern fans know this all too well and a loss this weekend could have dire at-large consequences. Northeastern needs a sweep this weekend and could greatly regret a loss down the road.
Fellow NHB writer Mike Davis picked Ryan Ruck as an “X” factor last week. That holds true, perhaps even more so this week. It’s been an up and down start for Ruck, but he needs to be on his game this weekend. The top 2 lines will generate shots – that in and of itself should be enough in these games. But if Ruck lets in a couple of soft scores, the pressure could mount quickly for a Husky team still in the process of finding its identity and testing out what works.
The Huskies will be able to use parts of this weekend to work on the power play (6 of 37 chances so far), to try to get the 3rd and 4th lines going offensively, and to adjust to the new standards for officiating. But wins come before all else.
Fallon: Northeastern sweeps: 5-1, 6-2
Davis: Northeastern sweeps 6-1, 5-3
Downie: Northeastern sweeps 9-2, 6-0