The Arizona State Sun Devils proved after two months that they are still the best team in the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA). But how do they match up against an NCAA Division I team?
This weekend, the Sun Devils travel to Pennsylvania to take on former ACHA foe Penn State in a two-game series. Last season, Penn State was the top team in the ACHA heading into the National Tournament before eventually losing in the semi-finals. ASU and PSU never faced each other last season, but that is about to change.
"[Penn State] will be one of the best, if not the best, teams this organization has played to date," forward Danny McAuliffe said. "You can expect us to come out ready to go. This weekend means not only a lot for our team, but for the league as well. We have always felt like this league doesn't get the credit it deserves and this weekend will be a great test to gain some credibility."
The Sun Devils are looking to continue their undefeated streak, while the Nittany Lions are hoping to stay above .500 on the season. In their first year as an NCAA program, Penn State is 6-5. A winning record for the team from Happy Valley is a good sign that their program is ahead of schedule in the rebuilding process. ASU head coach Greg Powers agrees with McAuliffe on the importance of this weekend to not only the team, but also the entire league.
"It's a weekend that everyone is going to be watching," Coach Powers said. "I think our league is behind us and they want to show that ACHA hockey is very competitive at the highest level. And that's what we hope to go in and prove."
Arizona State is not the only ACHA team that will face the new NCAA team this season. Ohio and Oklahoma each play a series against Penn State in February. Because Penn State now has the ability to give players full-ride scholarships, they have already inked five players in the 2013-2014 recruiting class. Four of those skaters currently play in the prestigious United States Hockey League.
"We have many guys on this team who either had offers to play at the [NCAA] level, did play at that level, or could have played at that level. And if any team in this league is ready to take them on, it's us. We are ready to go up there, with nothing to lose, and keep our streak going, plain and simple," McAuliffe said.
McAuliffe is right on point. The Sun Devils have become a powerhouse in the ACHA largely in part to Coach Powers and General Manager Ken Lind. The newest slogan that has developed over the past few weeks has been finding that "killer instinct." In the Sun Devils' last action two weeks ago, they found just that. Players on all lines were contributing to the team's dominating performance in Oklahoma. They outscored the Oklahoma schools 16-2 and there was not one player who stood out on the stat sheet.
In the last three games, first-year Sun Devil Brian McGinty lead with Sun Devils with six points (2G, 4A), captains Colin Hekle and Kale Dolinski each finished with five points, and freshman Stephen Collins registered three goals over the November weekend. It seems like ASU's newly adjusted lines are clicking rather nicely.
It will not be easy to continue that prowess this weekend, especially against a red-hot, PSU goaltender in Matthew Skoff. The Pennsylvania freshman started the last three games in net and has posted a 1.67 goals against average and a .956 save percentage.
Freshman David Glen leads the Nittany Lions with seven goals, 11 points and 46 shots on goal in 11 games this season. Skoff and Glen are two of the scholarship players who will play a crucial role in giving Penn State recognition in the future, but they still need time to develop.
"We're preparing for this series the exact same way we would anyone else. We don't think we have to tweak anything. We believe in our system. It's important for our guys to realize that against a team like Penn State, they have to execute what we want them to better than they have all year. Almost to perfection," Powers said.
The Sun Devils had a productive week of practice and looked sharp during their scrimmages. The offense gained more chemistry from just a few weeks ago and they had nearly flawless puck movement in the offensive zone. Believe it or not, the Sun Devils have not even played their best hockey yet.
"We got our hands full and [Penn State] is very good but we believe we can go in and compete. At least make it so they feel like they were glad that they [played us]," coach Powers said.
It will certainly be an entertaining weekend for Sun Devil fans, but don't be surprised if ASU loses both games. If they can escape with one victory, it will be considered a successful weekend for the top team in the ACHA.