Earlier this week, Arizona State head coach Greg Powers and his players had a sense that the team’s offensive zone struggles were nearing a breaking point. The Sun Devils had only scored two goals in 245 minutes of hockey.
“At some point, they are all going to drop,” said forward Sean Dhooghe of the goal drought. “...It’s taking the momentum from Michigan State, building this week in practice, getting better, and staying sharp and looking good and feeling good.”
Sure enough, the mindset for a winless ASU squad going into Saturday’s matchup with No. 14 Wisconsin didn’t waiver, and the dam finally broke. The Sun Devils (1-3-1) had 13 different point producers en route to an 8-5 barn burner victory over the Badgers.
Entering a second straight weekend without veteran captain and goal scorer Johnny Walker, Powers shuffled his lines to create the spark.
Some of those moves included putting Demetrios Koumontzis on the wing along with Jordan Sandhu and freshman Matthew Kopperud, as well as putting together senior Willie Knierim with Benji Eckerle and Jax Murray.
The result was two goals for Koumontzis, two goals for Knierim, and points for Eckerle, Murray, and Kopperud.
“Well, we scored eight goals so I guess they were pretty good,” said Powers with a chuckle describing the line shuffles. “They were great and we needed to shake things up in a major way. I thought we got production out of all four (lines).”
Starting off the game, Wisconsin scored less than four minutes into the opening frame on a one-timer tap-in for Badgers forward Brock Caufield. Based on how the Sun Devils have played behind the eight-ball this year, there was a possible sense of, ‘here we go again.’
Nevertheless though, quick responses never allowed Wisconsin to sustain momentum. Just minutes after the Caufield goal, Kopperud bounced back with a wrist shot to beat Wisconsin goaltender Robbie Beydoun.
The Badgers then grabbed the lead again on a shorthanded goal, but ASU had an answer. After giving up the shorty, the Devils responded 40 seconds later when Koumontzis picked up a loose puck and buried it to knot the game at two.
“It was huge. It builds a lot of big momentum going forward,” said Koumontzis of the response goals. “If you look back at the first game against Michigan, if we would have scored, maybe it would have been a different game...If you respond faster, it gets your team going a little more. And once we got the lead, we just took it from there.”
The first period responses led to the biggest period of the night, when ASU deposited three goals, including two in 25 seconds just over 10 minutes into the second period.
James Sanchez started the onslaught with a snipe from the slot to beat Beydoun, then Koumontzis and defenseman Tanner Hickey followed through with their back-to-back strikes. Hickey, an Alabama-Huntsville transfer, registered his first goal in maroon and gold.
That led to yet another high-scoring third period, when six goals occurred over a span of 20 minutes. ASU led 6-2 before Wisconsin netted three goals in a span of 10 minutes and 33 seconds to make things a one-goal game.
However, Knierim then provided the back-breakers, scoring a shorthanded goal with under five minutes left, then adding an empty netter to drain all the momentum that the Badgers had left.
“Willie’s a big leader for us and he’ll do what we ask to help the team win,” Powers said of Knierim. “He was really big on the kill all night and he got rewarded.”
It was a big victory for Powers’ bunch, who were hungry for their first win in an all Big Ten schedule.
However, one other thing that would be negligent not to mention in Saturday’s win was what occurred to Wisconsin prior to the puck even being dropped.
After a positive COVID-19 test that was first reported by Todd Milewski of the Wisconsin State Journal, the Badgers were left without five starters, including junior forward Roman Ahcan, who had a four-goal, six point weekend against the Sun Devils the last time the two programs met in February.
The one player tested positive, and the others were considered close contacts through contact tracing, meaning they have to sit out over the next 21 days in compliance with conference protocols.
Playing shorthanded, Wisconsin only had nine true forwards in its line combinations. ASU deserves credit for its hard-fought win, but that certainly played a factor as well.
The Big Ten is the only conference in college hockey that has yet to have a game canceled due to the virus.
“I’m sure it was a factor for them,” Powers said of Wisconsin’s missing pieces, “but they still have a ton of talent. Their top line is intact and all their defense was in the lineup and their starting goalie played. They are still a really good hockey team.”
Ultimately, Powers and his players believed a solid week of practice helped charge the Sun Devils best offensive showing of the season. The effort will look to be replicated going into Sunday’s second game.
“I think guys really stuck to the game plan tonight,” Knierim said. “We took what Coach Powers and the rest of the coaches have been telling us and took it to heart and it took us through 60 minutes...we got rewarded.”
Other Side Note
-After the game, Powers noted that due to recent COVID-19 spikes while trying to limit commercial travel, the team is going to be staying on the road even longer than expected.
Rather than the originally planned 22-day trip, it’s been extended to 36, with the team staying in the midwest and on the road for both the Notre Dame and Penn State series’ as well.
It was voted on by the team and received a unanimous verdict to stay on the road, as the team tries to continually navigate competitive hockey games while staying healthy during the pandemic.