It's been a crazy week for Arizona State hockey.
The announcement that the program will be transitioning to NCAA play garnered national news, and it was a huge step for West Coast hockey in general. However, the Sun Devils still are playing in the ACHA this season, and they had one of their toughest tests of the 2014 campaign on Friday night, beating No. 12 Illinois 2-1.
"It can't be a distraction, because it's reality," coach Greg Powers said. "But that's not an excuse and it can't be. Tonight, Illinois deserved to win that game. That's how I feel. They flat out deserved to win that game."
Whether the distraction of this week's announcement factored into Arizona State's early play is unknown, but the Sun Devils did struggle to get shots on goal in the first period. Arizona State earned a pair of power play opportunities in the opening period, but Illinois' defense stepped up shorthanded and Illini goalie Joe Olen didn't allow any Sun Devil shots past him, as the two teams carried a 0-0 stalemate to the second period.
Having had twenty minutes of play and ten minutes of intermission to get their feet wet against the Illini, Arizona State came out in the second period and took control. Arizona State's Eric Rivard took a sly no-look pass from Ryan Belonger and beat Olen with a quick backhand that found its way past Olen for the Sun Devils' first goal of the night. Barely six minutes later, the blazing-fast Sun Devils continued to increase the tempo of play, and were rewarded. A Illinois turnover led to an Arizona State 3-on-2 breakaway, and head man Chris Burkemper held the puck just long enough to open up a space for Tommy Cooney, and Cooney's rocket hit off the crossbar into the net. After two periods, Arizona State held a 2-0 lead.
"My linemates made a nice play in the neutral zone," Rivard said of his goal. "I just caught their D a little flat-footed, and then I like to take it to the net like that. It's just a typical goal for me."
Standout goalie Robert Levin continued his stellar sophomore season, as he controlled the pipes near-perfectly for Arizona State on the night. However, the goalie couldn't keep the Illini out for the whole night, and Illinois finally found itself on the board three minutes into the third period, when a James McGing shot caromed past Levin to cut the lead in half. The power play goal was set up by a less-than-intelligent penalty by Michael Cummings, who earned two minutes in the box for slashing.
The goal served as a huge momentum shifter for Illinois, and the Illini kept the pressure on Arizona State for the duration of the third period. But one goal allowed was too many allowed for Levin, and the Sun Devil goalie turned in a superb 15 minutes of play in the third period to help Arizona State close out the Illini. Illinois outshot the Sun Devils 21-8 in the third period, including a flurry of shots after pulling their goalie, but Levin and the Arizona State turned them all away en route to the Sun Devils' record to 19-2.
Even with the victory, Powers was not especially pleased with his team's play, specifically in the third period.
"I don't like getting outworked, and that team outworked us," Powers said. "We got a two-goal lead headed to the third period. We throw our top line out there to start the period and they get outworked.
"I thought Rob was the only reason we won."
Arizona State takes on Illinois again on Saturday night, then trek to Tucson next week for two games against rival Arizona.
Three Stars (selected by media)
1st: Robert Levin (Arizona State goalie, 39 saves)
2nd: Eric Rivard (Arizona State, one goal)
3rd: Joe Olen (Illinois goalie, 32 saves)