Hockey Preview: Penn State vs. No. 20 Arizona State

By Michael Green on December 11, 2020 at 9:30 am
Penn State defenseman Clayton Phillips carries the puck against Michigan. Penn State split the two-game series with the Wolverines in State College, Pennsylvania.
Penn State Athletics
Arizona State Sun Devils
6:00 p.m. EST – FRIDAY, DEC. 11
Pegula Ice Arena
2:00 p.m. EST – SUNDAY, DEC. 13
Pegula Ice Arena
Read: Lions Need to Build on Michigan Win

After starting off the season with five consecutive losses and only ten goals scored, Penn State’s offense finally came to life to the tune of nine goals in a 9-5 victory over then-7th ranked Michigan.

The Lions' next opponent, No. 20 Arizona State, has had a similar start to its season. The Sun Devils managed just two goals in its first four games while going 0-3-1. Then, they exploded with an 8-5 win at Wisconsin. The Sun Devils went on a three-game winning streak before losing a heartbreaker to Notre Dame its last time out.

If Penn State is to keep the positive momentum gained with the offensive explosion against Michigan, grabbing at least one win from Arizona State will be crucial. The schedule doesn't get any easier going forward, and a 2-6 or 3-5 record is a lot more workable than 1-7.

Penn State vs. Arizona State History

Penn State and Arizona State have met six times in the brief history of the head-to-head between two of the youngest Division I programs. The Lions won the first four meetings by a combined score of 26-6. The two then met in Hockey Valley two seasons ago and split a pair of entertaining contests. The Nittany Lions won the opener 6-5 and the Sun Devils got their revenge the next night with a 4-3 overtime win.

Look for this series to be more like the recent meetings than the initial ones. The two teams are very similar in that both score a lot of goals. In fact, the teams tied for sixth in the country last season with 121 goals apiece. If recent events are any indicator, this season will be no different.

Offensive Comparison

The Sun Devils return five of their top-ten scorers from last season including their top-two and four of their top-six. If that wasn’t daunting enough, ASU also added a familiar name – Sean Dhooghe – who transferred from Wisconsin in the offseason. Dhooghe led the Badgers in scoring two seasons ago as a sophomore.

There is good news for Penn State though. First, Johnny Walker, ASU’s leading goal scorer the past three seasons, has been sidelined with a leg injury since the second game of the season. There is no word on his availability this weekend. Also, ASU’s leading scorer from last season, James Sanchez, hasn’t been as explosive thus far scoring at roughly half the per-game rate he put up a year ago. Dhooghe, while always dangerous, has somehow yet to score a single point in eight outings in 2020.

The bad news is freshman Matthew Kopperud has picked up the slack. He’s tied with Cole Caufield, Scott Reedy, and two others to lead the nation with 6 goals. Caufield is just one point ahead of Kopperud for the scoring lead but has played two more games.

Penn State hopes to continue where its offense left off in its last outing. Players who are new to the roster or sat out last season (Bobby Hampton) accounted for six of the nine goals and seven of the fifteen assists in that game. That’s not to say the veterans didn’t perform up to expectations. The other three goals were scored by Aarne Talvitie (2) and Alex Limoges.

Defensive Comparison

Arizona State lost two of its top defensemen in the offseason. Brinson Pasichnuk graduated and Joshua Maniscalco gave up his final two seasons of eligibility to sign with the Pittsburgh Penguins as a free agent.

Senior Jacob Wilson and sophomore Jacob Semik take over as the top pair. Semik saw action in all 36 games as a freshman and Wilson is the top returning scorer along the blue line.

For the Nittany Lions, the emergence of Jimmy Dowd, Jr. couldn’t have come at a better time. The freshman made a pass to Alex Limoges against Wisconsin that isn’t made by many upperclassmen, let alone a freshman playing in just his second game. Dowd followed that up by scoring a goal and assisting on another against Michigan. The goal was another thing of beauty.

For Penn State to continue its winning ways, it will need more than Dowd, though. The top pairing of Clayton Phillips and Paul DeNaples will need to take their games to the next level. The duo is a combined -5 on the season and has not looked sharp overall. The pairing of Evan Bell and Dowd, for comparison, is +3 combined and has scored a pair of goals along with five assists.

Goaltender Comparison

Arizona State has split the goaltending duties through its first eight games. Freshman Cole Brady is 1-2-1 with a 3.62 GAA and .906 save percentage. Junior Evan Debrouwer is 2-2-0 with a slightly better 3.30 GAA and the same .906 save percentage.

After sharing the net the first four games with freshman Liam Soulière, junior Oskar Autio got both starts against Michigan. Game One was his best performance of the season statistically as he made 28 saves on 30 shots. Game two wasn’t as great, but he didn’t need to be. While he gave up some goals he’d probably like to have back, he made several big saves down the stretch when Michigan was down two goals and making a final push.

Bold Prediction

If you listened to the hockey podcast, you heard three predictions already. Doug picked ASU to sweep, Jacob believes Penn State will sweep and Nick split the difference predicting each team will win one.

Arizona State has won three of its last four games. However, it should certainly be noted that the Wisconsin team the Sun Devils faced (and beat twice) was not the same Wisconsin team the Nittany Lions faced the week before. The Badgers were hit hard by COVID-19 protocols and ended up playing just nine true forwards both nights. Two extra defensemen suited up and played forward positions to give guys some rest.  

Penn State, on the other hand, has played possibly the three best teams in the conference while they were mostly at full strength. I think Penn State puts together a solid weekend and wins both in close, exciting contests, 6-5 and 5-4.

Friday’s game will be available on BTN+ at 6:00 PM.  Sunday’s game will also be available on BTN+ at 2:00 PM. As always, follow @RLRblog on Twitter and check back here for coverage of the games.