Arizona State hockey is off to another fast start, but the road only gets tougher from here.
The team will play seven straight games against top 12 American Collegiate Hockey Association opponents, five of which are on the road. With such a young team, it's important for ASU to focus on its style of hockey and keep the tempo high because that can translate into marks in the win column.
Arizona State's perspective
"Teams are going to try and slow us down all season so how we operate in transition and moving the puck up the ice is going to be crucial to our success," head coach Greg Powers said.
After outscoring Arizona 11-1 last weekend, Powers was quick to say in the live post-game interview that UofA "could have easily took the lead on us a few times" and that Saturday "didn't feel like it was a 6-0 game" because the Wildcats held the Sun Devils scoreless for the first thirty minutes.
That so-called drought was the longest of the maroon and gold's young season, but it taught the team how to handle itself when the opponent tries to change the pace of the game.
Illinois could be one of the best team's in the league of varying the speed of the game. Last season when the two teams met in Chicago during the ACHA quarterfinals, the Fighting Illini demonstrated that they could hang with the best in the league.
"Its always a big weekend when you play such a highly ranked and respected program like Illinois," Powers said. "We are just staying true to the philosophy of not getting too high or low no matter the outcome. Two wins, or a loss here and there, doesn't mean anything. It's really what you take away from winning and losing to build off of is what matters most to us at this point in the season."
Even though a sweep on the road against Illinois would give ASU an opportunity to jump Minot State in the standings for the top seed, that's not what this team is focused on. Rather, they want to focus on making the right adjustments and see how the lines play together because that's more important when it comes to making a deep run in the national tournament.
Because Illinois surely still has a bitter taste in its mouth, they may have more riding on this weekend.
"(This weekend) probably inspires them because we were the ones who eliminated Illinois so I'm sure they'll come out flying, they are a very good hockey team," Powers said.
"I'm not sure that we need much more motivation than playing the best team in the ACHA in a special event in Chicago, but yes, I think it adds an extra layer to what should be a great weekend," head coach Nick Fabbrini added.
The program is in good hands with coach Fabbrini and the team's offense has gotten off to a hot start. Seven skaters have at least three goals and the team has already accumulated seven power play goals. But Fabbrini mentioned after being swept at home to Iowa State that his team has some work to do before they can be considered among the best.
"We're a young team, and I don't think we were ready to play with the intensity you need to play with to be a top five team in the ACHA. I'm hoping we have that figured out by this weekend," Fabbrini said.
It sounds like the Illini may have the 2012 Sun Devil syndrome of not playing a full 60 minute hockey game and maybe some minor adjustments would get Illinois back on the winning track.
"I think (last weekend) was a huge wake up call for a lot of guys about both what they need to do as individuals and what we need to do as a team to achieve our goals this season," Fabbrini commented.
Those goals are undoubtedly to win the conference championship and extend their run in the ACHA National Tournament. And there is no better way to prepare for that than to face arguably the toughest schedule in the ACHA. The team is going into week two of its five week rampage before the holidays.
Illinois will face No. 8 Iowa State, No. 2 Arizona State, No. 7 Robert Morris, No. 5 Lindenwood and No. 10 Ohio by the first weekend of November. If it can survive that stretch, this team will be on its way to achieving the goals coach talks about.
"I think our schedule is probably one of the best in the country, and as long as we compete and win our fair share of those games, playing so many top teams will only help us in February and March when the games really count," Fabbrini said.
Since Illinois has goal scorers, Arizona State needs to stay disciplined and not give Illinois the early opportunity to take the lead. Keep in mind Arizona State has never trailed in a game this season so let's see how the Sun Devils respond if Illinois happens to out produce the western school and keep their game plan simple.
"I think it would say a lot about our team if we are able to bounce back from a very disappointing weekend at home and steal at least two points from who I think is the best team in the country," Fabbrini praised. "We will certainly have our work cut out for us, though, as ASU just has so much talent. I'm just hoping we can compete and be in the game at the end."
Former CSCHL Rookie of the Year John Olen already has five goals and five assists and he is looking to improve on his 48-point freshman campaign. Senior forward Eddie Quagliata has not scored more than 16 points per season in his previous three years and he currently leads the team with 11 points.
The most notable difference is that Arizona State is a deeper team, but the game could come down to which team controls the pace and whether or not the Fighting Illini can create turnovers and disrupt ASU's passing lanes in its offensive zone.
This Sun Devil team is still young like Illinois and even though they may have the best talent in the league, the freshmen need to keep their composure because it's not realistic to win every game by at least five goals. This may be just the test Arizona State needs to keep them focused on the big picture.
Match-ups To Watch:
Nick Clarke (Illinois) vs. Joe D'Elia/Robert Levin (ASU)
Clarke enters the weekend with a 1-1-2 record, but his numbers are more impressive than that. He holds opponents to a 1.93 goals against average and a .922 save percentage. Last season, he posted similar numbers with 21 wins. The Illinois junior stopped 39 of 41 shots against Arizona State in the 2012-13 playoffs.
"Clarke is regarded as one of the top goalies in our league for a reason," Powers said. "He was dynamite at Nationals and we are expecting him to be very good this weekend, too. I think we are more explosive this year with more depth so hopefully over the course of a game, we can wear him down some. He's a great goalie, though."
"I would say our best player is our goalie, Nick Clarke," Fabbrini agreed. "He's an emotional leader, and is probably our toughest competitor."
As for D'Elia and Levin, the tandem combines for an undefeated 5-0 record, .963 save percentage and a 0.66 goals against average. Levin is working off back-to-back shutouts and D'Elia only allowed one goal against Illinois last year so Powers will have some decisions to make as he gets closer to finalizing his starting goalie.
Powers said he expects to use both of his goaltenders this weekend.
Illinois Freshmen D vs. Arizona State Freshmen O
Cody Von Rueden has nine points in his freshman season thus far, but can he be defensive minded against this dangerous Sun Devil roster. Coach listed him as one of his top two defenders who he relies on for multiple situations during the game. He also played on the NAHL Soo Eagles last year with ASU's Sean Murphy and Eric Rivard. Von Rueden, Robert Kokoszka and Austin Zima are all freshman defenders who played in at least five games.
The Sun Devils' third and fourth lines have five new recruits, including four freshmen who combined for 11 goals.
Senior John Scully vs. Redemption
He scored the lone goal against Arizona State last season and he has three goals, including a shorthanded goal, through seven games. Brian McGinty and Kale Dolinski are the two Sun Devil returners who scored on Illinois last March.