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ASU Hockey: Tough schedule proving as excellent improvement engine

For a team playing its first full-length, NCAA Division-I season, this schedule is nuts.

Sun Devil Athletics

Yes, the Sun Devils are a dull 7-16-1 with only six NCAA Division I games left. And no, they surely will not make the NCAA tournament.

But this is Arizona State’s first fully-scheduled NCAA Division I season, and the Sun Devils have fought a rigorous road playing 15 of their first 24 games against ranked programs. In the craziness of a season like this, the postseason is the least of ASU’s worries.

What coach Greg Powers and the Sun Devils have worried about though is getting better, and progression is something they have seen a ton.

“At this stage of our program we’re not going to win national championships,” Powers said. “We’re trying to figure out how to build this program the right way, so we can sustain success. And we really believe the schedule we’ve played is helping us do that.”

Here’s how tough the Sun Devils’ schedule has been thus far:

Their first nine contests were each against top-20 programs.

They have faced the current No. 1 (Denver), No. 2 (Harvard), No. 4 (Penn State), No. 8 (Boston College) and No. 13-ranked (Notre Dame) teams in the nation.

Of the 60 teams in NCAA Division I hockey, Arizona State has played the 31st strongest schedule. Thirty-one of 60 teams may not seem difficult, but after playing a hybrid schedule combined with ACHA teams last season, this has been a huge leap for the Sun Devils.

Now, the rest of Arizona State’s gruesome schedule includes five more series with three of them against ranked opponents. First, is No. 10 Ohio State, then ACHA Division II Southern New Hampshire, followed by No. 15 Quinnipiac, No. 14 Western Michigan, and finally Simon Fraser of the BCIHL. Each remaining game against a ranked team is on the road.

“You can probably learn more from losing than from winning,” Powers said. “Next year, I think people will see us reap the benefits of it.”

It’s true, the Sun Devils will be better next season. But this season, they have already shown how good they’ve become after playing a heap of ranked opponents.

In games against unranked opponents, ASU is currently 6-2-1, outscoring them 36-28.

Fast-forwarding to next season, the Sun Devils have already accumulated the 20th best recruiting class in the nation according to NeutralZone.net. And not only will they be welcoming a talented class of freshman, but the Sun Devils regain 22 of 26 players on their current roster.

Another plus for next season: Powers mentioned that in his 2017-18 schedule, so far, he’s only scheduled one game against a presently-ranked team before Jan. 1.

“You could imagine how much more playable a schedule like that is with a more experienced team with some really good recruits coming in. So we’re excited,” Powers said.

The 2017-18 season already looks bright for the Sun Devils, but they could still draw even more wins and possibly earn the program’s first win against a ranked team on the road this season.

The last time Arizona State won a contest was in mid-December during its three-win fiesta in Massachusetts. In those wins, Powers noted the Sun Devils’ effort and assurance.

“I think it’s just confidence,” Powers said. “We went almost 10 games with just playing with confidence and it didn’t matter who we were playing. We played our game. We played to win. We played hard.”

But against Denver, Powers saw his Sun Devils get outplayed, and it wasn’t because of their lack of talent or experience, but lack of effort.

“We were standing around watching Denver. I think our guys were enjoying watching them play more than playing them. And they’re a fun team to watch, but we need players who play, not watch.” Powers said. “I think that’s the biggest thing. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing. We’ve got to play hard.”

To beat the best of the best, like Denver or any ranked team, Arizona State must play at its best.

“Our guys need to find a way to sustain that 60 minutes and that’s what we’ve been focusing on in practice is just playing with pace and a lot of energy and urgency and it can’t go away. You can’t take a shift off especially against the teams that we’re playing,” Powers said.

Friday and Saturday’s games against No. 10 Ohio State (10-4-4) serve as another chance for the Sun Devils to prove how well this strenuous schedule has prepared them for another series against one of the nation’s best.

“They’re going to be tough. They’re going to be a tough tough team,” Powers said. “The good news is: We’ve seen everything, so they’re not gonna show us anything we haven’t seen.”