TEMPE, Ariz. – In just its fourth year of existence as a Division I program, Arizona State's men’s hockey team has been ticking off some pretty significant boxes en route to become a key player in U.S. college hockey. It’s actually quite impressive that an independent program playing in the Sun Belt in an undersized, antiquated facility has risen to prominence this quickly and hit the milestones the Sun Devils have.
• Become a consensus top-10 team in the nation? Check. The Sun Devils took care of that this week when they were ranked No. 10 in both the USCHO.com and USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine polls.
• Have your first graduating class? Check. The brother combination of Brinson and Steenn Pasichnuk, Brett Gruber and Tyler Busch were all feted on Senior Night last Saturday, becoming the first cohort to play a full four years of Division I hockey.
• Have your first 100-point scorer? Check. Senior defenseman Brinson Pasichnuk, who will be one of the more coveted college free agents once this season ends, scored his 100th career point on a goal in a 5-0 win over Alaska-Anchorage last Friday night. He followed that up with his first career hat trick in a 5-2 win over the Seawolves the next night.
• Post consecutive seasons of improvement? Check. The weekend wins over Alaska-Anchorage gave the Sun Devils a 22-9-3 record, giving them their second straight 20-win season and making them only the fourth team in college hockey to have hit the 20-win mark this season.
All of this success has the Sun Devils thinking big. Like, really big. Like winning it all big. “A national championship,” Brinson Pasichnuk said. “That was our goal, our freshman class. We got together when we came here and said, ‘In our senior season, we’re going to a national championship.' I said in our first press conference this year that’s why I didn’t go pro this year. We have the team to do it and I know these (senior) guys do, too.”
That’s pretty heady stuff for something that was a club program not long ago. The Sun Devils played a hybrid schedule against Division I and club teams in 2015-16 before becoming a Division I independent the next two seasons. The first two seasons were not a lot of fun. The Sun Devils went 10-19-3 in their first season under coach Greg Powers, who ran the club program prior to the team becoming Division I, then were even worse in their second year, posting an 8-21-5 mark. But they turned a corner last season when they went 21-13-5 and made their first NCAA tournament appearance, losing their opening round regional to Quinnipiac.
“I was heartbroken when we couldn’t do it for the seniors (last season),” Pasichnuk said. “Being a senior, honestly it’s scary. Being an independent you never know what can happen. You show up to the rink every day and you’re just grateful for the opportunity.”
And this is not exactly a plucky underdog with unrealistically high hopes. The Sun Devils’ optimism is grounded in very tangible results. They won and tied against eighth-ranked Denver in December and won and lost in overtime at No. 5-ranked Clarkson in January. They swept Quinnipiac early in the season and have earned splits with Harvard and Michigan State. So they feel like they’re right there. Even after losing goaltender Joey Daccord, who skipped his senior season to sign with the Ottawa Senators, the Sun Devils haven’t missed a beat.
“Like I told (the seniors), it doesn’t matter how our season ends, we all know what we want to accomplish and what we’re capable of accomplishing,” Powers said. “It could end today and what these (seniors) have done for us is never going to be able to be measured. The state they have our program in…they’ve put our program on their backs and made it what it is. Nobody will ever be able to say that they’ve done what this group of four kids has done for us. They came here to build something special and they’ve done just that.”
As far as the long-term prospects for the program, much of that hinges on whether or not the Sun Devils will be able to build a rink because the one they play in is not suitable for a Division I program. There are plans for a 5,000-seat, $105-million facility, but ground hasn’t even broken on it yet and there have been a number of false starts. Once they do that, not only will ASU be able to join a league, they’ll also have an enormous advantage in recruiting players.
The Sun Devils have one NHL draft pick in their lineup, Calgary Flames’ prospect Demetrios Koumontzis and the son of a Hall of Famer in sophomore Austin Lemieux, with another on the way when Jackson Niedermayer joins the program, likely in 2021-22. Josh Doan, the son of former Arizona Coyote Shane Doan, is slated to start playing the same year.
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