One of the primary reasons that Arizona State has earned the ACHA's No. 1 ranking is their incredible depth. They often have more talent in their top two lines than many of their opponents have on their entire roster.
It's a good thing that remained true on Thursday night, as the Sun Devils needed every last man and a key shoot out goal from a very unlikely source to earn an improbable 4-3 win.
For the first half of Thursday's game against the eighth ranked Liberty Flames, ASU looked like the ACHA's No. 1 team. They played aggressive, highly skilled hockey, and held a 3-0 lead midway through the second period.
However, ASU then seemed to lose interest in playing fundamentally sounds hockey, and Liberty slowly took advantage, ultimately forcing the game into a shootout. Once there, both goalies held serve and forced the game into a staggering eighth round, before ASU defenseman Darcy Charrois scored the game winner.
Early on in the game, Liberty exerted control, due in part to some sloppy play by the Sun Devils that has come to characterize their recent first periods. Thankfully for ASU, such a slow start did not hurt them, as goalie Joe D'Elia bailed the team out with some key saves.
Eventually, the Sun Devils evened the momentum, and began peppering Liberty goalie Blair Bennett with some quality chances. ASU finally broke the stalemate at the 7:11 mark, when Kyle Bowen picked up a Stephen Collins rebound, and fed Ryan Clark who slapped in the one-timer for the 1-0 lead. Despite some power play chances later in the period, including a 4-on-3 advantage for 1:11, ASU was unable to build upon their lead. A few more D'Elia stops ensured that Liberty trailed after the first 20 minutes.
The second period opened with a flurry off activity. Some hard checking by both sides preceded a sustained Liberty attack. In a span of just a few seconds, the Flames launched seven shots on D'Elia, but ASU's star netminder was equal to the task on each occasion.
Flame momentum appeared to continue, when on a single shift, ASU captain Colin Hekle and Dan Styrna left the ice with injuries. Hekle appeared to be in great pain as a member of the training staff worked on his right leg, but after a few minutes, he returned to the ice, and quickly made things happen.
On the next shift, he snared a Liberty pass out of midair in the offensive zone, made a deke to lose a defender, and dropped passed to a streaking Kale Dolinski in the slot who wristed the puck past Bennett's blocker for the goal.
Three minutes later, Hekle's great hands were on display again. Hughes shot from right point redirected out of midair by Hekle over to the left side of the crease, where an open Danny McAuliffe was there for the easy tap in goal.
However, Liberty was able to bounce back. First, Brent Boshman was able to knock in a rebound just inside the post on a zero angle rebound chance to get the Flames on the board. Just two minutes later, a sloppy pass by the Sun Devils in the offensive zone was picked up by Ryley Egan, who skated the length of the ice and passed to Lindsey LeBlanc for the one timer goal. That score trimmed the Sun Devil lead to 3-2.
The Sun Devils occasionally sloppy tendencies came back to bite them in the third. Several passes were telegraphed and easily intercepted early on, and then a bad icing call forced a faceoff in the ASU zone. Liberty's Danny Logan won the draw and dished back to Steve Bellew, who floated a shot through traffic and past D'Elia.
After blowing the lead, ASU had several great chances throughout the third period, yet failed to get the puck past Bennett. They even failed to score on a power play with 1:10 left in regulation, and the game went to overtime.
In the overtime period, ASU scored what appeared to be a goal in the first minute. Yet despite the puck being clearly past the line, the referee failed to see it and called for a faceoff. The rest of the period was a tense battle with each team having some good looks, but nothing that materialized into a real chance.
For the first three scheduled rounds, both D'Elia and Bennett made key save after key save. Then they did so in the fourth round. Then the fifth.
Finally, after D'Elia stopped Bellew, Charrois stepped to the line. The senior defenseman had really struggled throughout the game defensively, but he had redemption on his mind.
He skated in, put on a deke, then unleashed a wrister that beat Bennett five hole for the thrilling winner as the crowd erupted.
The win moves ASU to 23-4 on the year, as they prepare to open a two-game series against No. 10 Stony Brook, beginning on Friday night.
1st - ASU, 7:11: Clark (5), assist Bowen
2nd - ASU, 11:29: Dolinski (25), assist Hekle
2nd - ASU, 8:30: McAuliffe (14), assists Hekle and Hughes
2nd - LU, 7:27: Boshman (1), assist Turner
2nd - LU, 5:17: LeBlanc (11), assist Egan
3rd - LU, 12:25: Bellew (8), assist Logan