Despite everything No. 17 ASU Hockey has been able to do this season, their season hangs in the balance with just 10 games remaining. In a potential "must win out" situation to make the NCAA tournament, the first test comes this weekend against the Lindenwood team.
The Sun Devils may be moving to the National Collegiate Hockey Conference next year, but for one final season they are an independent team, which means they don’t have a conference tournament to help sway the rankings in their favor for the NCAA tournament.
Most teams that sit at 16th in the PairWise ranks, which determines these rankings, don’t usually have to fight for their postseason lives with 10 games left. For an independent team, the playoffs start now.
“Everyone knows the main goal and end result,” senior defenseman Tim Lovell said. “I think we have to just win as many games as we can, and as an independent, it’s playoff hockey now.”
Arizona State’s 17-6-5 record bodes much better than Lindenwood’s 5-14-3 season. However, the Lions are not to be taken lightly, especially in this critical stretch for ASU.
Lindenwood is coming off back-to-back wins over Stonehill, and though they’ve had some ugly losses, including losing 1-9 and 1-10 to No. 6 Michigan, they’ve also put up fights with some of the best teams in the country.
Back in October, the Lions tied with No. 15 Ohio State, and just before their sweep over Stonehill, took No. 3 Wisconsin to double OT, ending in a tie.
ASU has every reason to be confident against this team, but taking them lightly would be a massive mistake while looking to ride their three-game stretch of great games and tarnish the Sun Devils season.
“The only thing we can do is play what’s in front of us and worry about what we can control, and right now, that’s Lindenwood,” head coach Greg Powers said. “If you take Lindenwood lightly, they’ll make you pay, so our guys understand what’s at stake. Taking anyone lightly at this point with what we have to gain, it just won’t happen,” Powers said.
The Devils are coming off a much-needed bye week after suffering a sweep to Cornell and a split series with Augustana. The bye not only gave the team a mental break but also gave players a chance to get healthy.
Senior captain Tyler Gratton was injured and missed a game, while senior Ty Jackson, who was a huge part of the top-line success early in the season, also could see some time back on the ice this weekend after missing the last two months.
"(Jackson) skated last week on his own, and this week he's with the team," Powers said. "He looks good, his legs are really good, he's flying out there. He looks sharp and crisp."
Having a healthy squad is only one piece of the puzzle; when it comes to what ASU needs to do to take care of Lindenwood and secure the sweep, the message is universally that the Sun Devils need to focus on themselves.
"The energy in the room is high; everyone is still bought in, still focused on the main goal, and that's to make history and make the tournament," senior forward Lukas Sillinger said. "It's one of ASU's best seasons here, so we are really looking to have a final push here."
Sillinger leads ASU in points this season and has been nominated along with Lovell for the Hobey Baker Award, awarded to the best player in collegiate hockey.
Sillinger and Lovell will be key to the success of the Sun Devils down the line if they want to not only pick up a pair of wins this weekend but continue their winning ways for the next five weeks and into the NCAA tournament. The team plans to accomplish this by taking it one game at a time.
"We've gone through some ups and downs recently, but we've learned," Lovell said. "Heading into this weekend with the right attitude and the right details in practice that we've been doing, I think we should be fine and off and running from there."
Edited by Alfred Smith III, Sadie Buggle and Caera Learmonth.