The Sun Devil hockey team has four regular season games remaining, but the ACHA National Tournament brackets have already been released.
After compiling a 31-6 record through its first 37 games, Arizona State appears poised to make a deep run in the tournament.
In each of the last two seasons, the Sun Devils have suffered early exits from the tournament after strong regular seasons.
This year, Coach Greg Powers and company hope to rise above the competition and win the first ACHA National Championship in Arizona State history.
Our House of Sparky staff breaks down the road to the title.
The Sun Devils will meet either Rutgers or Navy in their first tournament game. Who do you think poses a bigger threat to making the Sun Devils a "one-and-done?"
Brad: I think it's clearly Navy. The Middies have an imposing offense, with the leagues top scorer in Thomas Krysil (44 goals, 82 points), a 30-goal scorer in Dustin Oberlander, as well as two other players with over 40 points. Not only that, but behind them stands goalie Andrew Mills, whose .932 save percentage should worry ASU. We've seen the Sun Devils struggle when an opposing goalie steps up his game, and with Navy's offensive ability, ASU may have no margin for error in that game.
Kerry: I actually disagree with Brad and think Rutgers would pose a greater challenge to the Sun Devils. The Scarlet Knights have been off and on this year, but they needed a win to make the tournament and put up an emphatic result with an 8-0 victory over Drexel. Though Navy looks tougher on paper, I think the weak schedule the Midshipmen played will hurt them in the National Tournament. Either way, the winner of this game will play the Sun Devils on short rest and I find it hard to believe Arizona State would fall.
Nick: I'm going to disagree with Kerry. The Naval Academy finished 28-4-1 on the season even though they had a relatively easy road to the tournament compared to most teams. Though Rutgers beat Navy 4-1 in late September, Thomas Krysil (44) and Dustin Oberlander (31) both know how to score though so the Scarlet Knights are in for it unless they put on a defensive show. Navy has one powerhouse offensive line and though I think the Sun Devils will have no problem against either team, the Midshipmen are the biggest threat for ASU out of the first round game.
If the Sun Devils advance to the quarterfinals, they will face the winner of the Illinois-Delaware game. Which would be a more difficult matchup for the Sun Devils?
Brad: Despite being a lower seed, I'll say that Delaware would be the bigger challenge. Illinois is better offensively, but their goaltending has been suspect. That combination and high-scoring potential favors a match-up against ASU's potent forwards. Delaware, on the other hand, is the kind of defensive-minded team that has often given ASU fits. Plus, they are the defending champions and those postseason intangibles cannot be discounted.
Kerry: I know Nick will agree with me here because we are both big on the Illini. Delaware has been there and done that as a long-time ACHA powerhouse, but Illinois is peaking at the right time. In 2013, Illinois split with Lindenwood before embarking on a six game winning streak that includes a two game sweep of Robert Morris. Oakland got hot last year, and of all the teams below the No. 5 seed, I believe Illinois can make the biggest run.
Nick: 2011 and 2012 finished with the same result: a one-and-done. But not this year. Assuming the Sun Devils advance to the quarterfinals, they have an intriguing match-up between two teams who have won three of the last ten ACHA National Championships. Regardless of who wins, it will be a difficult test for the Sun Devils. Like Kerry and I are saying, Illinois could be a dark horse team to watch in a few weeks considering they are 7-1 in 2013 with some impressive wins as Kerry mentioned. Senior Scott Barrera led the team with 11 points this calendar year and Illinois may have the home ice advantage being only three hours away from the Windy City.
If the Sun Devils reach the semifinals, who do you foresee them playing? Will it be a favorable matchup?
Brad: I can't help but think the this weekend's showdown with Minot State will not be the final time these two teams meet this season. I just can't see anyone in their bracket giving them much of a challenge in the opening rounds, so I think that ASU and Minot State are destined to meet again, but this time with much greater stakes. Minot made a statement in scoring a win in Tempe earlier in the year, so it will be crucial for the Sun Devils to put on a good show this weekend and at least earn a split.
Kerry: There is no doubt in my mind that if the Sun Devils reach the semifinals, they will face Minot State. Barring a collapse from Adrian, the Sun Devils will play the third highest seed in the tournament in the semifinals and Minot State has the horsepower to make a deep run. The Beavers beat the Sun Devils in Tempe earlier this season, and I think the eventual national champion will emerge from this game.
Nick: If ASU can make it to the National Semifinals, I think it will be a rematch of this weekend against Minot State. As intriguing of a pick as Oklahoma sounds, I’m not sure the Sooners can even get past No.11 Oakland. The Beavers lead the ACHA with eight shutouts and 46 goals allowed as of Valentines Day. They may be lacking in the offensive side, but the last time ASU and Minot State played, ASU could only muster two goals at home. Yikes.
Who do you think will win the title?
Brad: As much fun as a Cinderella story may be, like Oakland last year, I think the bracket-makers got it right this year and that we'll see No. 1 Adrian battle the second-seeded Sun Devils for the title. Right now, I'd give Adrian the edge, but that could change depending on the health of ASU captain Colin Hekle. If he can recover in time and get back to his elite form, then ASU has a great chance to bring home the championship.
Kerry: While Adrian holds the No. 1 ranking in the country, I find it hard to believe the Bulldogs will win it all. Rarely do we see the top seed take the ACHA Title, and the Bulldogs haven’t faced the same rigorous schedule that Minot State and Arizona State have played. The kicker here is if the Sun Devils can get Colin Hekle and Jordan Young back and healthy. If so, there is no team that can put more talent on the ice and no team that should down the Sun Devils.
Nick: 2010 was the last time the number one overall seed own the national tournament so I am going to shy away from Adrian. Minot State could be a very dangerous team in the top half of the bracket especially if the Sun Devils are still trying to get healthy. Though, it was nice to see Liam Norris skate against Williston State and resume his duties as second line center.
The bottom half of the bracket is a little weaker and is wide open in my opinion. I could easily see Robert Morris advancing to the finals. This year is certainly up for grabs with no true dominant team so you do not want to miss House of Sparky’s coverage in the beginning of March. Also be sure to tune in to Fast Hockey because all the games are supposedly free of charge (thank goodness). I will be in Chicago to give everyone the latest updates.
If I had to pick a champion, I would say the Minot State Beavers because they are playing well in the second half and cliche or not, defense wins championships.