Every good team goes through rough patches in a season, but it's the teams that can rebound from difficult losses and overcome adversity that become truly great.
By no means did the Arizona State hockey team play its best game of the season on Saturday night, but the Sun Devils showed toughness and character en route to a 5-3 win.
Coming off two consecutive losses that featured third period collapses, the Sun Devils were in desperate need of a player to step up and lead them to victory over a pesky Central Oklahoma squad.
It didn't take long for the Sun Devils to find a sparkplug, as team captain Colin Hekle made his presence felt throughout the first period. The junior forward sent a beautiful pass across the ice to Dan Styrna who beat Bronchos goalie Tory Caldwell to open the scoring less than eight minutes into the game.
Hekle takes charge of the specialty lines for the Sun Devils, and plays a critical role on both the power play and penalty kill units. In the first period, the Bronchos committed five separate penalties that gave Arizona State four power play chances. Though the Sun Devils failed to capitalize on any of those chances, Coach Greg Powers believed it was just a matter of time before the Sun Devils broke through.
"We had to have about 15 quality scoring chances tonight. We dominated the game and we'll take it because they're a tough team to play," Powers said.
With time ticking away in the first period, defenseman Darcy Charrois dumped the puck into the offensive zone and forced Caldwell to come out of the net and make an attempt to clear the puck. The Bronchos goalie made one of his first mistakes of the weekend and Stephen Collins picked off an errant pass before drilling a slapshot right past a flustered Caldwell.
In the second period, the Bronchos received a boost from forward Mike Sullivan who exploited a relaxed Sun Devil defense on a breakaway attempt to cut the 2-0 deficit in half.
With his team in need of cushioning the lead yet again, Colin Hekle broke down the left side of the ice and deked across the crease to beat Caldwell before tapping home his first goal of the game. Hekle's speed proved too much to handle for the Bronchos defense, and his creativity with the puck set up the goal.
One of the greatest weaknesses for the Sun Devils over the course of the weekend has been their lack of focus after giving up a goal, and that trend continued after Hekle scored.
Broncho sophomore Shane Khalaf delivered a laser of a shot that wound up finding a home in the top shelf of the net just 90 seconds after the Sun Devils opened up a two-goal lead.
At the 7:17 mark in the second, Broncho freshman Jordan Bledsoe went to the box with a penalty, and the Sun Devil power play unit finally hit its stride.
Behind another shift of crisp passing from the forwards, Faiz Khan found the back of the net to help the Sun Devils pad the lead. Khan's one-timer was set up by assists from Styrna and Hekle, and the second line contributed four of the five Sun Devil goals on the night.
Coach Greg Powers was thrilled to assemble the Hekle, Khan, and Styrna line, and he talked about the importance of getting his team healthy again.
"That line was so dominant against an NCAA Division 1 team and that Penn State win was literally the last game that those three played together," Powers said. "They obviously have some amazing chemistry and they picked up right where they left off after two months."
Trailing 4-2, Central Oklahoma had a prime opportunity to draw even when Ryan Clark went to the box with his second penalty of the night. Instead, Hekle delivered his most impressive play of the night when he skated in front of a Broncho shot and darted down the ice for a shorthanded goal. Hekle took one for the team and it paid off as his goal helped the Sun Devils take a commanding three-goal lead.
Shane Khalaf would answer with another goal at the very end of the second period, but the Sun Devils never relinquished control of the game and used a strong effort from Kyle Dietriech in net to hold the Bronchos scoreless in the third period.
Coming into the game, the Sun Devils faced questions about their depth and recent struggles, but they put all of those things behind them in a quality team victory.
Arizona State returns to action next weekend in Tempe against the Rhode Island Rams, and Coach Powers believes this win will help build momentum for the stretch run.
"We have plenty of time to start the uphill climb and reach the peak heading into nationals. That's been our number one goal all year. It's to be peaking come March 1st and we're now heading in that direction."