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ASU Hockey: Sun Devils take down No. 4 Denver

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Johnny on the spot

Richard Martinez/House of Sparky

As the final buzzer sounded at Oceanside Ice Arena on Friday night, there was a yell from the Sun Devil bench just before the team went off to congratulate sophomore goaltender Evan DeBrouwer.

“It’s us against the world, boys,” one player exclaimed.

Indeed, it’s the chip on the shoulder, and that attitude that No. 20 Arizona State (8-4-1) has played with for the majority of the team’s first five seasons at the NCAA Division I level.

Although the program’s talent level has elevated, that demeanor was evident once more on Friday as the Sun Devils knocked off No. 4 Denver (9-4-2) by a final of 4-1 to claim the team’s first victory over a top-five opponent in program history.

“At the end of the day, it’s belief in ourselves,” said ASU head coach Greg Powers. “We know and we expect to beat everyone we play. It’s a genuine belief.”

The ingredients to a Sun Devil upset on Friday included solid goaltending, wins on the face-off dots, and a whole lot of junior forward Johnny Walker.

Walker had three of ASU’s four goals to record a hat trick, and his presence was felt from the opening puck drop.

Just over five minutes into the opening frame, he received a cross-ice pass from sophomore forward Jordan Sandhu. Walker came in on a Denver defenseman, toe dragged, and buried a shot up high on Pioneer freshman goaltender Magnus Chrona.

Later in the first, he then received an outlet pass from Sandhu once more. He got behind the Denver defense, and Chrona made a gamble to come out and attempt a poke check.

Walker was able to maneuver his way around the netminder and slide the puck past the goal line as he was taken down to the ice. That gave the Sun Devils the early jump they needed.

“The first one, Sandy (Sandhu) made a great rink-wide pass. I talked to him on what they were doing in the neutral zone, and we made a little adjustment there,” said Walker as he recapped his goals. “It was a great pass and I just put it at the net. The second one, again, Sandy (Sandhu) put a little Rory (Mcilroy, the golfer) backspin on that one. It was just a sick pass.”

Prior to Friday’s contest, Walker was on a three-game goal drought, and Sandhu wasn’t on the top line.

However, with a mix and match, Sandhu, Walker, and junior forward James Sanchez were put together to create harmony. ASU sophomore forward Demetrios Koumontzis, who was on the top unit, shifted down to the second line.

Powers’ shuffle paid dividends, and he shrugged it off with some sarcasm.

“Clearly I knew he was going to get two great assists in the first period,” said Powers with a chuckle of the Sandhu move. “No, it was more really to get Komo (Demetrios Koumontzis) going...Komo is a hell of a player and we need him going. And tonight, he was going. We wanted to put him in a position to where he could carry a line.”

ASU held a 2-0 advantage after 40 minutes of play, but a top-five team wasn’t going to go down easy. Denver cut into the lead with a goal by junior forward Jaako Heikkinen with just under 10 minutes to play.

The bridge between a Sun Devil win or a third period two-goal breakdown laid in the balance. ASU opted for the victory, with the back-breaker coming on a costly Denver hooking penalty with 2:48 remaining.

The Devils went to the power play and took advantage. Walker picked up his hat trick on a redirected shot from freshman defenseman Jack Judson. Senior forward Brett Gruber then put home an empty-netter to close out a 4-1 final.

Denver had been taken down, and it was the Pioneers first loss in non-conference play since Dec. 29, 2017. Their head coach, David Carle, gave a tip of the cap.

“I got a lot of respect for Greg and his staff,” Carle said. “They found a niche in recruiting and I think as their program continues to build, their recruiting footprint is going to continue to build...They play a good brand of hockey.”

Among other standouts, ASU also had another shutdown effort from DeBrouwer between the pipes. He made 33 saves on 34 shots, and never looked fazed. However, he deflected the credit to his teammates.

“I got a little bit lucky on some plays with some rebounds,” DeBrouwer said. “My d-men were all there like they have been all year. It makes my job a lot easier when you just have to make the first save.”

ASU didn’t outshoot Denver, but they had a 43-29 advantage in the face-off circle, helping to create puck possession and clear the defensive zone multiple times.

There were also a variety of blocked shots, and when the Pioneers made the game a one-goal margin, ASU didn’t seem bothered.

There was never any let down, and it led to one of the biggest Sun Devil victories of the season.

Since the beginning of last season, ASU is 16-3-1 at Oceanside Arena, but they will have to go for the sweep elsewhere tomorrow evening when the team takes on the Pioneers in game two out at Gila River Arena in Glendale.

“As we’ve grown here, we’ve been the underdog,” Powers said. “This year after making the tournament and being kind of a consistently ranked team and knowing that we have a good team, we are not the underdog on most nights anymore. I think our guys embraced it tonight really well, and hopefully they embrace it again tomorrow.”