(Hekle Photo Images)
A clutch power play chance sends the Sun Devils to the Final Four
Great teams convert in the biggest moments, and Arizona State did just that on Sunday afternoon to punch their ticket to the ACHA Final Four.
"Our guys found a way and gutted it out," said ASU head coach Greg Powers.
They call them "special teams" for a reason, and ASU's units on both ends were exactly that in the clutch final minutes of Sunday's quarterfinal match-up against Illinois.
The Sun Devils surrendered a third period lead, but were able to convert a late power play goal which was followed by a sensational last minute effort on the penalty kill that resulted in a shorthanded goal to ice ASU's 3-1 victory over the 7th seeded Illini.
ASU will now enjoy a day off before returning to action on Tuesday night for a chance to play in the national championship game.
Illinois dominated the early minutes with an aggressive style that kept the puck in the ASU zone and challenged Sun Devil goalie Joe D'Elia, but the junior netminder was equal to the task . After withstanding that early surge, ASU then turned the tables on the Illini. Stephen Collins made a tremendous play near the Illinois net, batting a puck out of mid-air and finding an open Brian McGinty, who one-timed the puck passed Illini goalie Nick Clarke for the opening period's only goal.
That lone goal nearly had some company, as two quick Illinois penalties gave ASU a lengthy 5-on-3 power play, but some nice stops by Clarke kept the Illini deficit at 1-0.
In yesterday's second round win against Rutgers, the second period featured five goals, four by ASU. Instead of a high-scoring affair, today's middle frame was an absolute goaltending clinic.
Illinois started the period off strong, with the orange jerseys peppering D'Elia with a variety of difficult shots, and the Sun Devils returned the favor with sustained pressure on Clarke. However, both goaltenders remained perfect against the period's 26 combined shots, and each man had a number of incredible saves to keep the score an ever slim 1-0 ASU lead.
ASU's defense was stout during the first minutes of the final period, as Illinois continued to be stymied on all opportunities. But then, during a scrum in front of the ASU net, John Scully was able to fire the puck passed D'Elia to even up the game.
Things began to look dire a few minutes later when D'Elia was hit late by Nick Stuercke, and remained on the ice for a few minutes. D'Elia would remain in the game, and ASU would get a key power play chance, that was made a 5-on-3 a minute later thanks to another Illini penalty.
The two-man advantage did not work for ASU, but on the ensuing 5-on-4, Sun Devil defenseman Ryan Clark scored to retake the lead.
Tense moments followed as the Illini pressed a desperate attack, and their chances improved greatly after a Liam Norris penalty with just 2:15 left in regulation. After pulling Clarke at the 1:15 mark, Illinois had a 6-on-4 advantage, but ASU never wavered.
The Sun Devils special teams responded in a championship-caliber way, as a diving Colin Hekle cleared the puck from the ASU blue line to a streaking Kale Dolinksi, who buried the empty netter to seal the 3-1 win.
D'Elia earns our first star of the game, thanks to his 29 saves on the 30 Illinois shot. Clarke was sensational in defeat, stopping 39 of the 41 shots he faced.
The Sun Devils will now await the evening's results, as the ACHA tournament re-seeds the field prior to the Final Four, with the highest remaining seed taking on the lowest current seed.
1st - ASU, 15:01: McGinty (16), assists Collins, Parson
3rd - ILL, 11:32: Scully (6) assists, Kovalsky, Welch
3rd - ASU, 7:03: Clark (9), assists Dolinski, Norris Power Play
3rd - ASU, 0:46: Dolinski (32), assist Hekle Empty Net, Shorthanded