Sitting at No. 11 in the Pairwise rankings, and No. 17 in the USCHO Rankings, it’s officially time to turn up the dial as the ever-awaiting 2019 NCAA College Hockey Tournament looms on the horizon.
After being swept against No. 12 Cornell just prior to picking up a sweep of their own against Boston College, Arizona State (16-9-1) is coming to a crossroads in its unprecedented fourth season at the NCAA Division I level.
The next month and a half is officially the push to the postseason, as the 16 best teams in college hockey will be announced to play in the NCAA Tournament on March 24.
“It would be the most amazing thing ever,” said senior forward Anthony Croston of possibly making the tournament. “We have had a good year so far, but we are just trying to take it slow.”
March 24 might seem like quite some time, but for the Sun Devils, their season is coming towards its latter stages. ASU has eight games remaining thanks to an early-season schedule that was stacked with games.
There is more room to breathe and recover during the back half of the season as ASU tries to become the first independent team to make the tournament since 1992.
So, why are these next eight games so integral?
College hockey isn’t March Madness. There are only 60 teams in all of Division I college hockey. Only 16 teams get tickets to hockey’s version of the “Big Dance.” There are six automatic qualifiers from conference tournaments. The other 10 selections come from at-large bids that are picked from the Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Committee.
The at-large teams are primarily selected by their pairwise ranking, which is the deciding factor in a team’s decision to make the tournament. ASU is 11th in the Pairwise right now. Statistically, they should get in. Here’s where becoming an independent team becomes a little dicey.
If you’re an ASU fan, root for no upsets in college hockey’s conference tournaments. Non-number one seeds winning conference tournaments doesn’t help ASU’s chances.
For instance, if No. 1 St. Cloud State was to get upset in the NCHC Tournament, they would still get into the postseason pending any out of the ordinary scenarios. The more teams that get upset in the tournament, the less room there is for ASU.
It sounds frightening for the Sun Devils, but here is the good news: ASU very much controls its own destiny. Take care of business in the final eight games, and making the tournament shouldn’t be a problem.
They have two Hobey Baker Finalists with sophomore forward Johnny Walker and junior goaltender Joey Daccord, and they are tied for the third most wins in college hockey with 16.
Additionally, ASU is 4-7-1 in games against teams who are currently ranked in the top-25 of the Pairwise. The record might not be great, but they have challenged themselves and been up to the task against high-caliber opponents.
The Devils have four more games in hand against teams in the top-25 in Pairwise, as ASU takes on Boston University and Minnesota both on the road. ASU plays Boston this weekend.
“I don’t think there is any panic in our room at all,” Walker said. “We are focused on Friday night and Boston University, and controlling what we can. As long as we are doing what we need to do, we will be fine.”
As Walker alluded to, there is no nerves on the team with big games ahead. Should there be?
The answer is no.
This is what the players and head coach Greg Powers have envisioned for the last four seasons. Many people might not have put the Sun Devils in this position to begin with at the beginning of the year. Compared to where they were last year, and looking at the numbers this year, ASU is way ahead of schedule.
There is an opportunity to make the NCAA tournament as an independent team in just the team’s fourth season. You couldn’t ask for much more.
A strong start has allowed ASU to try and make history, pending the final eight regular season games. Game one of eight in a crucial push to the finish line begins this Friday against Boston.
“I don’t think there are many people who would have had us in this position before the season,” Daccord said. “There’s not a lot of people outside of this school and this program that thought we would be here, so I just think we got to enjoy it and take it all in, and be grateful for the fact that we are here.
“And then also, realize that we are here...We got to kick it into high gear and take advantage of the opportunity that we have because it’s an incredible opportunity.”