Coach Powers watches his team take on Central Oklahoma - (Hekle Photo Images)
ASU hockey has faced some obstacles of late, but their head coach is focused on regaining one key element before the national tournament
Skilled forwards: Check.
Tough defensemen: Check.
Excellent goaltending: Check.
Few teams, if any, in the ACHA can boast as much talent as Greg Powers' Arizona State squad. In all three zones, the Sun Devils simply outmatch most of their opponents, which has been the leading component in the team's nearly four-month reign atop the league standings.
However, the team is just a pedestrian 6-4 over the last 10 games, and three of those victories were nail-biting wins in either overtime or shootout. ASU has faced a decisively more difficult schedule and battled numerous injuries, but their head coach believes the reason for the struggles are all in their head.
"For the most part, the biggest issue with our guys was the mental approach," Powers said. "It wasn't anything from our system standpoint. The way that we want to play, and the way we approach games both technically and systematically, it works. It all started with their approach in the room. They some how, some way, lost the swagger that put us as the No. 1 ranked team in the country."
That swagger has become a trademark of Sun Devil hockey, and as essential a part of the team's success as their deep lines or their strong goaltending.
"That's what I hear most when I go in and talk to opposing coaches," said Powers. "We're a team that's known to have a swagger about themselves, and that's the way that I've really tried to build this program. We have kids here now that their natural take on things and the way that they handle things naturally has a legitimate natural swagger to it that a lot of people on the outside looking in want to come in and be a part of."
However, the season's second half has seen the team struggle both in the locker room with the mental consistency they had previously shown. The damaging effect was clear on the ice, despite the efforts of the team's leaders.
"We lost that, for whatever reason," said Powers. "Our guys got away from that. They lost some confidence. They forgot what made them such a highly ranked team.It was a top to bottom thing. I think the captains all wanted to fix it, but nobody was really taking control and doing their part in all facets. We might have had somebody step up in the room and try to fire the guys up, but then that person would go out and not play their part on the ice."
One of the key issues that impacted the team's swagger quotient was a rash of injuries that have hit the team, especially up front.
"It's simple. I don't want to blame injury, per se, but I think it has something to do with it," said Powers. "Obviously, when you're missing that kind of firepower like we were, it's clear. Even putting in two of the three, with (Dan) Styrna, Faiz (Khan), and Kale (Dolinski), you saw what a difference it made. But when you add three, and then you add Liam (Norris), you're back to square one."
Thankfully, the prognosis on this front is promising. Khan recently returned after a lengthy absence, and the team is set to welcome back Dolinski, who was the team's top scorer at the time of his injury, this weekend.
Bolstered by some of the early returns, ASU rebounded with a convincing win over Central Oklahoma on Saturday that Powers believes can be a catalyst for a strong finish.
"I knew it was only a matter of time until they snapped out of it, and I think they did on Saturday," Powers said. "Adding a couple of guns up front gave confidence all the way through. We played well Saturday. They're having fun. They were acting like themselves in the room before the game and in between periods, and most importantly, on the bench, and it showed on the ice."
One player who Powers pointed to as being paramount to the turnaround effort was team captain Colin Hekle.
"What I think happened Saturday was that our leadership group as a whole really took the reins," said Powers. "That's what has to happen at this stage of the season. There's only so much you can do as a coach. You got to hope that the guys take over. Hekle was amazing on Saturday. I think that a big part of it was that he got his line back. He feels really comfortable with those guys and has a natural chemistry with them. It was arguably his best game of the year."
Maintaining that success will be difficult, and the first step in regaining their dominance starts deep within for the Sun Devils.
"The way we approach games at ASU against any opponent is to focus on us," Powers said. "Focus on what we need to do, on how we want to play, how we want to act. In doing that, we'll execute. That's what we got away from. We were more worried about injuries, and other teams wanting to come in and play their best against us. If we just focus on us, like we did over the entire first half, we'll be fine."
One are in which Powers is not concerned lays between the pipes with his goaltenders. Each of the three goalies got a start last weekend, beginning with starter Joe D'Elia against Oklahoma. D'Elia had one of his worst games of the season, surrendering six goals in the loss, but Powers expects his ace to be back to his championship form.
"Joe's fine. Joe played very well the 3-0 week that we had the three squeakers," said Powers. "First against Liberty then especially against Stony Brook. I think he was getting a little worn down and then in the Oklahoma game, you could see it in the third, he just kind of shut down. He's our guy, and he's a guy that has proven he can win a championship and hopefully he'll lead us to one."
D'Elia will get the start this Friday night to open a two-game series against No. 15 Rhode Island, a team that brings a structured game to Tempe. While Powers certainly isn't overlooking any opponent, he know that the Rams can't match-up to a group of swaggering Sun Devils.
"They're a good team. They're a lot like UCO," Powers said. "They play hard, they're well coached, they'll be structured. They'll have a definitive gameplan and they'll execute it to the best of their ability. They won't have near the firepower that we do. They're a team that if we're buzzing out there, and we're executing the way we need to and the way we can, we should be able to overwhelm. But there's really not that many teams that we shouldn't."
The two-game series against the Rams marks the first of the regular season's final nine games, a critical stretch in which Powers believes his team must put all of their pieces together, and that starts with, you guessed it, swagger.
"I just want to see that swagger. Show up every day, every game, every practice," Powers said. "There's six weeks left in the season. There's absolutely no excuse for everybody in that room to not dig deep and find their part to make sure our team plays to the fullest of their ability. Each coach will do it every day, and we have a great leadership group. Saturday against UCO was definitely a step in the right direction. If we can come out Friday like we did on Saturday, I think it will be safe to say that we're out of that funk."
One ally in the team's homestretch goals is the schedule. While difficult, featuring eight games among the nine against ACHA Top 20 competition, Powers feels it lays out to suit the Sun Devils' needs.
"We have teams like Rhode Island and UofA who are fighting to get into Nationals. We're going to get their very best. They're the kind of teams we're going to see early in the tournament. It's perfect the way that it is set up. Then we're going up to Minot to play a team we could potentially see in a final four situation. The way the schedule is laid out, I couldn't have gotten luckier."
If the team can parlay that luck into some regained swagger, and add it to their vast talent pool, the rest of the ACHA is in danger. Ultimately, Powers believes that should the Sun Devils play Sun Devil hockey, good things lay ahead.
"If we take care of business and do things the right way, we should be hitting our peak heading into Nationals and feeling really good about ourselves."
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