At the beginning of the season, Arizona State coach Greg Powers noted that the Sun Devils were preparing to tackle the most difficult schedule in program history. Of the 41 games lined up for this year, the Sun Devils would play 31 of them against opponents ranked in the ACHA Preseason Top 25.
Even with so many high profile opponents, every Arizona State player had one series circled in red on their calendars from the get-go. At the midpoint of their season, the Sun Devils planned to travel to Happy Valley, Pennsylvania to take on the Penn State Nittany Lions, an NCAA Division I opponent.
After starting the season a perfect 18-0, the Sun Devils looked primed to succeed against any challenger they faced. They already possessed four victories over their rival, the Arizona Wildcats, and five victories against teams currently ranked in the ACHA Top 10, and appeared positively unstoppable in the vast majority of their games.
But then came Happy Valley, where dreams of a perfect season went to die. Though the Nittany Lions came into the series sporting a 6-5 record, all 11 of their games were played against fellow NCAA Division I opponents who represent significantly more difficult tests than the club units found in the ACHA.
Regardless of Penn State's NCAA affiliation, Sun Devil stars Colin Hekle and Kale Dolinski remained undaunted as they prepared to showcase their skills on college hockey's biggest stage.
For the Arizona State hockey team, the series in Happy Valley was an opportunity to prove its naysayers wrong. Every player that dreamed of playing at the Division I level, every player who felt slighted during their recruitment, and every player who was told he couldn't skate fast enough or shoot hard enough now had the chance of a lifetime.
Ranked No. 1 in the ACHA, the Devils rolled into Penn State riding a wave of confidence. On Friday, their moment in the sun was short lived.
After a relatively even first period, the Sun Devils went to the locker room tied 1-1 behind a Dan Styrna goal. When the teams returned to the ice for the second period, Penn State capitalized on a few defensive lapses by the Sun Devils and took a 5-2 lead. Styrna answered in the third period to cut the deficit to two, but Arizona State's upset hopes went up in flames.
The Nittany Lions dominated the third period action with three goals en route to an easy 8-3 victory. For two months, Arizona State defeated opponents with ease but suddenly found themselves on the unfamiliar side of a beat down.
Many different factors could have led to Friday's disappointing performance including jetlag, an unfamiliar environment, nerves, and perhaps just the realization that Penn State has 18 scholarship players compared to zero for Arizona State. Luckily for the Sun Devils, Coach Greg Powers doesn't accept excuses.
The Sun Devils possess nearly every quality of a championship team, yet their loss to the Nittany Lions gave Arizona State the chance to prove they have the one quality that still remained in question?
Is Arizona State resilient?
On Saturday night, the Sun Devils enjoyed another crack at the Nittany Lions and had a second chance to prove that the brand of hockey played in Tempe deserves the hype.
If Friday's game exposed Arizona State's weaknesses, Saturday's taught the rest of the ACHA a valuable lesson. Don't give the Sun Devils a second chance.
In game one of the two-game series at Penn State, head coach Greg Powers pulled goalie Joe D'Elia after he allowed his fourth goal in just the second period. In game two, D'Elia responded with a remarkable effort that helped lead the Sun Devils to an improbable victory.
The Arizona State netminder rebuffed every Nittany Lion chance in the first two periods and allowed the Sun Devils to charge out to a 2-0 lead. Faiz Khan opened Saturday night's scoring off a Dan Styrna pass in the second period that breathed new life into the Sun Devils.
Kale Dolinski provided the Sun Devils second goal of the game early in the third period and that was all the offense Arizona State needed. Dolinski added a second goal to seal a 3-1 Sun Devils victory, and helped prove that this team does belong.
Arizona State's victory over Penn State is nothing short of historic, as the Sun Devils captured the first victory over an NCAA Division I opponent in their program's history. Over the last few years, the ACHA has touted the improving quality of play on display. Arizona State's victory now gives the league a tangible result.
A resounding amount of support poured in from Sun Devil opponents after the upset in Happy Valley. Congratulatory tweets from teams at Oklahoma, Syracuse, Rutgers, and others were met with grand smiles from the Arizona State players who lived out their dreams.
The Sun Devils triumph improves their overall mark to 19-1 on the season, but the tick in the loss column serves as a reminder of their most meaningful win. After suffering a five-goal defeat at the hands of the Nittany Lions, the Sun Devils needed their best outing of the season to have a remote chance of hanging with Penn State. Fortunately, they got it.
When Arizona State crafted its schedule, the Sun Devils knew they would have a plethora of opportunities to defeat marquee opponents. Nearly every ACHA opponent possesses a roster of players who play with a chip on their shoulder and never had the opportunity to play on the biggest level. Every game is a grind, and the Sun Devils have conquered all comers along the way.
This weekend, the Sun Devils finally got the chance to take their game to the next level. After a loss on Friday, Arizona State roared back with a victory that showed the resilient nature that makes a team dangerous. If Saturday is any indication, the Sun Devils don't care how talented the rest of their opponents might be. This team doesn't plan on losing another game.