ASU hockey has faced some tough stretches in its last year as an independent team, but the next four games against the Alaska Fairbanks could decide whether the Sun Devils advance to the postseason.
No. 18 ASU sits with an 18-6-6 record with just eight games remaining, but week by week, their NCAA tournament hopes have been slipping away.
A sweep at the hands of Cornell, a split with Augustana and a tie against a weak Lindenwood team have landed ASU in a three-way tie for 17th in the PairWise rankings, which decides who makes the tournament.
The Sun Devils face Alaska Fairbanks for a two-game series at home this weekend, and with Fairbanks just eight places behind them in the PairWise with a respectable 12-10-2 record, it could be a massive opportunity for ASU to get right and climb back up the polls.
"You wake up every morning, and you look at (the PairWise ranks); you live and breathe by it," freshman forward Kyle Smolen said. "You watch every game … We are looking at those rankings every single day, and it’s hard not to when you’re a competitive group like these guys. If we get in, we are going to make noise."
There’s plenty that ASU will need to do to shut down the Nanooks in Tempe. For the Sun Devils, the continued exceptional play of senior Matthew Kopperud is going to be a must. In Friday's matchup with Lindenwood, Kopperud notched his 100th career point in the 4-4 tie.
"I think I've sort of started to find my game," Kopperud said. "Before Christmas, I was doing fine, but now that I've had my body fully healthy, everything feels completely normal. I got comfortable with my linemates, so five-on-five is clicking a lot more, which makes it a lot easier."
Kopperud has been elite in the power play all season but has struggled to find production in the five-on-five. In the last five games, Kopperud has tallied seven points with five goals. ASU will need that production to continue against Alaska Fairbanks and beyond if they want a chance in these closing games.
Smolen was also a significant contributor on the defensive side in the weekend series against Lindenwood. Smolen threw his body in front of pucks multiple times, recording one block on Friday and two on Saturday.
"One thing I learned in this sport, and it's a great sport, is there's always something bigger than you," Smolen said. "If you want to be a successful player and successful person in life, you have to sacrifice stuff you might not always want to do, and blocking shots on the (penalty kill), it's not something you want to do; it's something you need to do."
For the Nanooks, junior Brady Risk is the leading point-getter with 29, accompanied by 11 goals. The leading goal scorer for Alaska Fairbanks, however, is junior Harrison Israels with 16 goals. Though Israels didn't record a goal in their most recent contest with Anchorage, he found the back of the net four times in their previous series against Long Island.
Containing the dynamic pair of upperclassmen is going to be a big key to the Sun Devils' success, though ASU typically prefers to focus on their own game plan and not worry about who is on the other side of the ice.
"We really respect how hard (Alaska Fairbanks) works," assistant coach Dana Borges said. "We have to make sure we have intensity going into the week, so that's a big theme for us. Being ready to compete and keeping our intensity high, we want to peak by Friday."
Despite the enormous pressure that the PairWise rankings have put on ASU, the team is prepared to face the challenge and isn't ready for the season to end just yet.
"We have eight games left, or we have more than eight games left," Kopperud said. "If we can play these games the right way, then I think we'll be just fine and play more after that."
The puck drop is at 7 p.m. on Friday and 5 p.m. on Saturday at Mullett Arena.
Edited by Alfred Smith III, Sadie Buggle and Grace Copperthite.