The red light goes on. Again.
Brian Slugocki had just slapped home a one-timer, and the Wildcat fans in the corner of Oceanside Ice Arena burst into an excited roar. Slugocki's power play goal had given Arizona a commanding 3-0 lead over Arizona State with 12:27 left in the second period. The Sun Devils 28-game winning streak over their hated rivals appeared to be in serious jeopardy.
But not to ASU junior forward Danny McAuliffe, nor to any of his teammates. A team doesn't beat their rivals that many times, nor climb to the No. 2 spot in the national rankings without a strong sense of confidence.
"It was a pretty surreal moment," McAuliffe recalls. "I think that a lot of people expected us to think the game was over. I know the announcers were saying that the game was over. On the bench, we had a lot of composure and we checked within ourselves and we knew we were going to fight back and eventually get the win."
That they did. Beginning with Faiz Khan's goal late in that period, the Sun Devils stormed back to force overtime, where Darcy Charrois' wristed home the winner in thrilling fashion. McAuliffe has been a part of a sizeable portion of the now 30-game winning streak, but the nature of that particular win stood out.
"It's always great beating them, whether it's 11-0 or an overtime or a shootout winner, but that one was special," McAuliffe said. "We had been in a bit of a slump lately, and we fought back and battled through a little bit of adversity. I think that year after year, we find ourselves in a shootout or overtime, and that thrill is just the rivalry taking place. It's hard to rank them all, but it definitely feels good."
The Sun Devils had indeed been struggling earlier in season.
Coming off their dominant first half of the year in which they compiled a 20-2 mark and secured the ACHA's No. 1 ranking, ASU went just 6-4 after the holiday break during a stretch marked by injuries and slow starts. While that mark would be an accomplishment for many programs, it was enough to drop ASU to No. 2 in the ACHA polls and raise some questions about the team.
However, after the sweep over Arizona, ASU has now posted five straight wins, gotten healthy and regained their swagger in the nick of time.
"The struggles we were facing earlier in the year were more due to not being healthy, guys being out of the lineup, trying to find that chemistry," McAuliffe said. "You can't win every game, and I think we saw that early on in the second semester. It looks like we're on a bit of a roll now. We're getting some guys back, and I think we'll be going into Nationals with a full head of steam."
McAuliffe's play has been a major factor in the team's success this year.
A local product from Phoenix, McAuliffe burst onto the scene as a freshman in 2010, scoring 20 goals. He followed that up with a solid sophomore year in which he tallied 17 goals and 36 points, but took a big step this season. Just one of five players to appear in all 36 games, McAuliffe has 42 points, third-best on the team. He also leads the squad with 57 penalty minutes, and credits both his experience and teammates for his growth.
"It's my third year in the league. Every year, you want to do better than the last year," said McAuliffe. "Now I'm an upperclassmen, and guys look to me to lead a little bit on this team. I want to put up points, but I also think that the linemates that I'm playing with-Liam Norris and Kale Dolinski-have a lot of chemistry together. They help me out as much as I help them. We click on that level, and I can attribute that to a lot of my success this year."
Another major factor is the team's depth. Head coach Greg Powers has built ASU into one of the nation's elite programs, and with so many talented players on the roster, McAuliffe and his teammates continually must earn their ice time.
"Year after year, Coach Powers brings in top quality guys," said McAuliffe. "My first year here, I felt I was more offensive. I try to play the whole game, defensive, offensive, being physical. I do what I can for the team, but it is tough because you're battling for a spot day in and day out with the top notch guys we have on this team. It's nice to have that depth, but it's tough to stand out amongst anyone else."
The schedule was additionally favorable to ASU this past weekend, when the team enjoyed a week off, allowing the players to get some much needed late-season assets.
"A lot of rest and a lot of team bonding," said McAuliffe. "We've been playing a lot of hockey this whole year, so it was nice to have a Friday and Saturday off where we can sleep in, mentally relax and physically relax, and hang out with the boys and get on the same page before we head into this homestretch."
That homestretch begins this Thursday with a road trip up to North Dakota, where the team will face Williston State on Thursday before a crucial two-game series against No. 3 Minot State. ASU previously crushed Williston 7-1 back in January, but despite the Minot series looming, McAuliffe sees little chance of a trap game.
"Williston, like any team, is going to give all they got against us. They have absolutely nothing to lose. With traveling, we want to make sure we don't use those ‘travel legs' or jet lag as an excuse against these guys. Hopefully at this point in the season, we're not going to take any games off. If we do, that's a bad sign. We feel confident that we're going to go in there and win all three games, and we expect to get three wins."
The Sun Devils did not have similar success in their earlier meeting against Minot State. The Beavers jumped on ASU early in the game and held on for a 3-2 win in Tempe. McAuliffe believes that that loss, as well as a similar disappointing performance against Robert Morris-Illinois taught ASU a valuable lesson.
"Earlier in the year against Minot and Robert Morris, we got caught taking a game off," McAuliffe said. "They're ranked No. 3 in the nation for a reason. If we take a period off or take a shift off, they're going to jump on us. So I think it is just compiling a whole 60-minute effort and making sure we're winning the little battles."
To that end, the Sun Devils aren't spending too much time examining the game and player of Minot State. Rather, ASU is focusing on their own game, holding form in the belief that if they play to their potential, no team can match them.
"We don't focus too much on the other team's scouting report as much as you would think. We go into every game knowing we're truly No. 1. We just got to play with a chip on our shoulders, and let them do the scouting on us and let them do the matching of the lines. We'll go out there and do what we know how to do."
That includes starting strong and executing in all phases of the game, something that ASU has struggled with in recent weeks. McAuliffe also sees the Sun Devil offense playing a crucial role over the weekend.
"It's winning the little battles. Every player and every shift winning the little battles," McAuliffe said. "Most importantly, I think lately, we've struggled in putting the puck in the back of the net. We're getting tons of chances and tons of shots, but it seems that every game we play, the opposing goalie always stands on his head. We're going to do our best to bury the puck and find the back of the net. If we do that and do what we can defensively, we'll be fine."
While this match-up with Minot State is huge, the end goal is winning a national championship. On Wednesday night, ASU learned that they would be the No. 2 seed in next month's national tournament. Despite the lofty position and the first round bye that comes with it, McAuliffe feels that not being named No. 1 will serve as motivation for the Sun Devils.
"It's more of an excuse to win that final tournament and win that ring and show everyone that we are that No. 1 team and that's what we feel. We'll just have to go out there and put four games up out in Chicago and make sure that by the end of that tournament, that everyone knows we are the No. 1 team."