The last time Arizona State defenseman Jacob Wilson stepped on the ice in an NCAA game was March 1.
After serving a two-game suspension from a hit that carried into the first game of the 2019-20 regular season, he was back on the ice on Sunday afternoon, and his presence could be felt in more ways than one. The alternate captain’s voice was echoing on the Sun Devil bench.
“That’s how it’s supposed to look,” said Wilson when the Sun Devils took a 3-1 lead in the second period. “It’s fun when we play the right way. Keep it going.”
A night removed from a third period collapse and an upset loss, the Devils (1-1) had Wilson back in the lineup, and they recorded their first win of the season. They held on for a 6-4 victory over Mercyhurst.
“It was huge in every way and invaluable in the room and on the bench,” said head coach Greg Powers of Wilson returning to the lineup. “It’s just the energy that he brings and the leadership that he brings, and how he defends so aggressively and effectively. He was a big shot in the arm for our guys tonight.”
Wilson had three shots on goal and a few big hits in his return, but he wasn’t the story on the stat sheet. That belonged to ASU’s first line forwards and its top defense pair.
The top group accounted for nearly all of the team’s points. Junior forward Johnny Walker had two goals and two assists, sophomore forward Demetrios Koumontzis had a goal and two assists, and junior forward James Sanchez had a goal and two assists.
“They are both great players that can make plays,” said Walker of his linemates. “They can obviously put the puck in the net, too...If you have Komo scoring too, something has got to be good.”
On the blue line, senior defenseman and captain Brinson Pasichnuk had a goal and an assist, and sophomore defenseman Josh Maniscalco unloaded on a one-timer for ASU’s first goal of the afternoon. Half of the Devils’ six goals occurred on the power play, as the special teams’ unit was lethal. Pasichnuk elaborated on the chemistry that he continues to develop with the second-year d-man.
“I love playing with Josh. It just feels like we know where we are going to be,” said Pasichnuk of playing with Maniscalco. “We have really good chemistry out there, and I think it has a lot to do with the fact that we are best friends away from the rink...We have that brotherhood bond.”
Powers added to his captain’s point, and expanded on the line’s performance.
“That line was awesome and they produced a ton for us,” Powers said. “To be honest, they dominated last night’s game too, but they did everything but put it in. But tonight, they found a way to find the back of the net. Komo (Koumontzis) got us going to start the second...Down the line, it was fantastic and they got it done.”
Despite the big performances and holding a 4-2 lead entering the third period, ASU would be given another third period scare by Mercyhurst in the final 20 minutes. After Pasichnuk ripped a laser off the crossbar and in to make the score 5-2, the Lakers responded with two late power play goals.
The penalties were self-inflicted in a game where things were being called tight. Additionally, Sun Devil goaltender Max Prawdzik made his first start after coming over from Boston University, and Powers expects more solid play from the netminders moving forward.
ASU outshot Mercyhurst for the second night in a row, this time generating 41 shots to the Lakers’ 21, but the road team still found a way to hang around.
“We didn’t defend poorly. We gave up 23 shots last night and 21 tonight, and not a lot of grade-A’s,” Powers said. “We need some more saves, let’s be honest. We need some more saves and those guys will get it done. Discipline-wise, I think a lot of the stuff in the third was just trying to even things up...I felt like we were discipline enough both nights to win.”
Ultimately, a miraculous Laker comeback fell short, and ASU prevailed. Walker put the finishing touches on the win with an empty-netter in the final minute.
Through two games, the Sun Devils are 1-1, though the feeling in the dressing room is bittersweet after a season-opening loss. A much taller task lies ahead next week when the team goes on the road for the first time to take on No. 3 Minnesota State, a team that the Devils tied with last season out at Gila River Arena.
“It’s always disappointing when you think you should get a sweep. That’s our expectation now,” Powers said. “We are going to put this weekend behind us, but we are going to learn from it. Closing out games, we were able to get it done today...At the end of the day, all that matters is getting a win. Wins are really tough to come by in Division I hockey. We are back at .500, and off we go.”