When the disappointing 2021-22 season ended, Arizona State men’s hockey coach Greg Powers and his staff identified one area in particular that needed improvement: the team’s ability to keep the puck out of the net.
In the offseason, the Sun Devils revamped their goaltending position and they spent a good chunk of training camp focusing on defending better; even delivering the edict that those who did not defend well would not play.
The results have been there through six games. ASU is allowing 2.7 goals per game, which ranks 23rd in the nation (ASU was tied for 51st last season), and goaltender TJ Semptimphelter is 15th in the nation with a save percentage of .934.
The issue that Powers did not foresee was his team’s inability to put the puck in opponents’ nets. ASU ranked 10th in the nation a year ago at 3.3 goals per game. The Sun Devils’ offense was elite.
With the exception of Colin Theisen (now with the Tucson Roadrunners) and Jack Becker, most of ASU’s offense returned this season and Powers also added forwards Lukas Sillinger, Robert Mastrosimone, Ty and Dylan Jackson through the transfer portal. Even so, through the first three series of this season, the Sun Devils are scoring just two goals per game, which is tied for 46th in the nation.
“The biggest thing is guys are just trying to get too cute,” Powers said. “We’re playing a little bit too much perimeter, skill hockey. We have a skilled team, but it doesn’t take away the fact that you’ve got to funnel pucks and bodies to the net, especially when you’re just trying to manufacture some goals to get going.”
That was a major point of emphasis this week in practice after a disappointing home split against an underwhelming Colgate team in the first series at Mullett Arena.
“We’ve been working all week on dirty areas, battles in those areas, races and funneling pucks and bodies to the net,” Powers said. “It’s hard to score. We were really good at it last year but generally when you start scoring the ugly ones, the pretty ones come. It’ll happen. We have too much offense not to score, but we have to simplify.”
A look inside the numbers shows a few other areas of focus that could help the Sun Devils regain their customary firepower.
Powers has not liked what he has seen from the Sun Devils in the faceoff circle, but it has been particularly alarming in the defensive zone. In the past four games, here are ASU’s respective faceoff percentages in the D-zone: 33 percent, 31 percent, 30 percent and 28 percent. Not surprisingly, ASU has been outshot in all of those games.
Take these numbers from Bemidji State with a grain of salt because stat keepers are notoriously bad in some venues, but the Devils were outshot 40-20 and 45-25 at Bemidji; 32-29 and 42-30 against Colgate.
“It’s impossible to win, giving them the puck that much in the O-zone,” Powers said. “There’s your answer for shot differential.”
When teams lose defensive-zone draws, they end up expending time and energy defending in their own zone while trying to gain possession of the puck. That leaves less time or energy to play offense. ASU has to shore up its faceoff numbers in every zone.
Powers has 13 new face in his lineup. It takes time for all of those new faces to build chemistry in the dressing room and on the ice with one another.
It hasn’t helped that forward Dylan Jackson was experiencing some residual effects of the broken sternum he sustained last season at Northeastern. He sat out the loss to Colgate on Saturday but is good to go now. The Jacksons have real chemistry playing together and Powers expects them to flourish soon.
He also thinks that tweaking the top line by putting Josh Doan at center, Sillinger on his off wing and Mastrosimone on the left side will create better opportunities and more offense for a line that has been good, but not elite. The coaching staff wants to take advantage of Mastrosimone’s wide speed by playing him on the wing.
There is also the reality of playing in a new arena. After opening with four games on the road, ASU returned home to a litany of special events focused around the grand opening of Mullett Arena. When they weren’t hobnobbing with school officials or donors, they were working around construction crews that were still active in the arena, putting the finishing touches in place. They also had to adjust to the quirks of a new arena; everything from the dressing room and the workout areas to the ice and boards.
Finally, Friday’s first game (and win) in their new building was emotionally draining for the Sun Devils. Powers said the team looked much better in practice this week.
“We just feel so much more settled now that we got those out of the way,” he said. “You can just feel a little bit more intensity and focus on what’s important, and that’s playing hockey.”
Again, the season is only six games old so it’s too early to judge what this group of players can become.
Offense from the defense
Last season, the Sun Devils got 13 goals from their defensemen in 35 games. This season, they have one goal (an empty-netter from Ty Murchison) in six games. It doesn’t help that ASU lost talented freshman Blake Dangos to a high-ankle sprain in Bemidji that will keep him out another three weeks, but when asked if the defensemen were doing enough to generate chances, here’s what Powers said.
“No, they’re not. That’s another reason for our struggles. We’ve been working a lot on getting them activated in the offensive zone, getting up the ice, finding fourth man’s ice and just getting shots through. It’s been a huge focus all week is getting our D more involved, and they want to be more involved. It just hasn’t happened.”
Matthew Kopperud scoring from the flank on the power play became a familiar site the past two seasons. He has one power-play goal this season, but the unit hasn’t been performing up to expectations.
Last season, the ASU power play ranked 17th in the nation at 22.4 percent. This season, it is tied for 40th at 16.7 percent. Powers said that the Devils are getting their looks, they’re just not finishing and again, they need to get more pucks through to the net.
“Once we start scoring on the power play, our overall production is gonna go up,” said Powers, whose team will face Colorado College on Friday and Saturday in Tempe. “They’re gonna start feeling a little more confident and it’ll get going at 5-on-5.
“We’re right there. If we have a good weekend this weekend, we’re in great shape.”
Top photo courtesy of Sun Devil Athletics