No. 16 Arizona State Hockey (6-1-1) welcomes No. 2 Denver (6-1-1) to Tempe on Friday and Saturday in what will likely be its most challenging pair of games thus far after retaining its top-20 ranking in the USCHO poll.
After narrowly sweeping Stonehill (0-9-0) on Nov. 3-4, ASU has a lot to clean up if they want to be competitive against a Denver team that has a plethora of goal scorers and won their last three games by a combined score of 15-2.
“Last week, our guys were looking ahead to this weekend,” head coach Greg Powers said. “As much as you tell them to control what you can control, it’s tough to do knowing you have arguably the best team in the country coming in for such a big series.”
Denver earned its No. 2 ranking after a few impressive outings. The Pioneers swept Alaska Fairbanks (4-3-1) and earned a win over now No. 1 Boston College (7-1-0).
If ASU is to take a game or two in this series, they will need the heroics of senior forward Matthew Kopperud to stick around this weekend. Kopperud scored in the two come-from-behind victories over ASU with the game-tying goal on Friday and the game-winner on Saturday. This season, Kopperud leads the team with five goals with a .143 shot percentage.
“I was out pretty much all last year, so I had to do everything I could to make sure I could come back this year and help the team,” Kopperud said after Saturday’s win. “I put in a lot of work this offseason to get me back to where I am.”
Part of what has really helped the Sun Devils thrive early this season is the amount of depth on the bench. ASU already has 14 different goal scorers through the first eight games, with freshmen Cole Gordon and Anthony Dowd being the latest additions after scoring goals against Stonehill.
“(We) want to have balance; we want to have scoring coming from everywhere,” Powers said. “Our top line did some really good things (last weekend), but we didn’t really get any production out of it and still came out with two wins, so that’s a good sign.”
However, ASU will have to deal with Denver’s depth as they already have 17 different goal scorers this season. With a high-powered offense, ASU will need to be better defensively now than they have all season.
“Our D-Core is pretty confident," junior defenseman Ty Murchison said. "We have been playing really well. We know it’s a big test, but I think we are really excited to get to it.”
The Pioneers have scored 39 times through eight games this season for Denver, including eight goals from junior Jack Devine and five from junior Massimo Rizzo. Denver has also been exceptional on the penalty kill only, allowing opponents to score at a .147% clip. The productive Sun Devil power play will have their work cut out for them this weekend.
“Just staying out of the box and trying to win the special teams battle,” Powers said. “Nothing changes. We need to get pucks into the net and simplify things. That’s what we did on Saturday (against Stonehill).”
ASU will need to be more disciplined on the ice if they want to get revenge for last year’s pair of losses on the Pioneers' home ice. For junior goalie TJ Semptimphelter, this matchup has been on his calendar since last season.
Semptimphelter is well rested after three games off the ice and will likely be in front of the net for both matchups with Denver after recording a collegiate career-high 53 saves in the loss to Denver last year.
“They’re a great team, very talented, well-coached, they have a lot of really good players, so these are the games you get up for as a player,” Semptimphelter said. “Every game is obviously important as an independent, but whenever you see a ranked opponent coming into your barn, you want to make sure you handle business.”
The puck drop for game one of the series is at 7 p.m. on Friday, and game two will begin at 5 p.m. on Saturday night at Mullett Arena.
Edited by Alfred Smith III, Walker Smith and Angelina Steel.