After sophomore forward Johnny Walker and junior defenseman Brinson Pasichnuk skated off the ice Friday night, they walked into the postgame interview session inside Oceanside Ice Arena, and disappointment swirled about the room.
However, after the lull of losing 3-2 to No. 1 Ohio State, emotions started to to take a turn, and they shifted toward excitement for the ASU men’s hockey team and its future in the aftermath of a tough loss. Although it has only just started its fourth season as a Division I program, ASU has began its jump into the national scene, and it has improved its culture and expectations.
“This program is at a point now where we are talking about being the tradition,” Walker said. “We talked about it in the locker room. There are no more moral wins. We expect to beat the No. 1 team in the country, which I think is a tribute to where this program is and how far it has come.”
During the highly-contested matchup, Ohio State capitalized on its power play to take a 3-1 lead. Coach Greg Powers said there was a feeling on the bench unlike any previous season in the same situation – ASU still believed it would win.
In previous years, Pasichnuk, a team captain, said players would be upset and voice frustration at teammates after a hard-fought defeat, which caused a negative reaction. However, he said this season has been vastly different.
“You can tell we are just so upset because we felt like we knew we could beat that team,” Pasichnuk said. “But guys aren’t going after each other. We are picking each other up, so leading this team has been just so cool to see how the guys have responded. We are becoming a family. That is what it takes to win in this league.”
Powers has set a foundation by building a new leadership model, recruiting high-end and coachable talent and implementing a rigorous schedule, all while managing a game-by-game mentality. He uses a countdown clock in the team locker room before each game. He said this all plays into the ultimate goal of making the NCAA Tournament.
Powers said this year's freshman class, including redshirt freshman forward Austin Lemieux, will be special and make a significant impact because of its high-end skill. He also noted that ASU has continued to grow with experience, physicality and hard work.
Powers mentioned the Sun Devils have struggled to score goals early on during the program's youth, but freshmen forwards Demetrios Koumontzis, Jordan Sandhu and P.J. Marrocco can change that dynamic quickly.
“Bringing in those three up front really sprinkles in skill and ability to put the puck in the net that we haven’t had,” Powers said. “Now saying that, they are freshmen, and you never know with freshmen. Sometimes it clicks right away, and sometimes it takes (a while).”
Powers said he thinks the potential is there, especially with Koumontzis, who was drafted by the Calgary Flames in the fourth round during the most recent NHL draft.
Koumontzis can attend practice and speak to Calgary during his time at ASU, and the Flames may call Koumontzis before his eligibility ends. Above all, the talented young forward said he wants to help ASU win while improving his skillset.
As a veteran and a captain, Pasichnuk has been in awe of the freshman class as well.
“I thank God every day for bringing this freshman class we have,” Pasichnuk said. “They are a special group of guys. They instantly came in and just helped us finish that mold that we were waiting for."
As Powers continues to gather highly-talented student-athletes, he said he feels ASU is headed in the right direction with a deep roster that the program didn't have previously.
With an improved culture, prominent talent, some quality wins and a new 5,000-seat arena adjacent to Wells Fargo Arena in the works, ASU doesn’t have an uphill battle for recruiting anymore – the future is bright.
“When you start to create that momentum, kids’ ears start to perk up about playing Division I hockey at Arizona State,” Powers said. "It is going our way. It really is.”