MINNEAPOLIS — This is the time of year when a myriad of retired Minnesotans head south to spend some time in the sun. Arizona is a popular destination for the “snowbird” crowd, content to trade their snow shovels for shorts and sandals, and watch their favorite hockey teams on TV, from afar.
By contrast, the Arizona State Sun Devils have been in the land of snow and ice for the last three weeks, bouncing between hotels in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Indiana as a part of their season-long road trip. After two games with the Minnesota Gophers on Thursday and Friday, they will finally get a break from what ASU coach Greg Powers called arguably, “the most difficult schedule in the history of college sports” and will head back to the Valley of the Sun for some rest and recuperation.
The Sun Devils concluded their first 36-day road trip of the season a week before Christmas with a respectable 4-6-2 mark. Things have been considerably tougher since they flew to Minnesota on Dec. 30 and opened Phase 2 of their schedule with 4-1 and 6-4 losses to the Gophers. They are 1-5 in 2021 after getting swept at Wisconsin last weekend.
With injuries mounting — they will be without forward Sean Dhooghe versus the Gophers after he suffered a hit to the head by former teammate Roman Ahcan in Madison — and the series delayed a day due to a COVID-19 scare, there was a stern reminder that effort is the only thing players can truly control.
“I told the guys after the first game in Wisconsin, yeah we were short, but the effort and the battle and the pride wasn’t there, and that’s what we care about,” Powers said this week. “Sometimes you don’t get the result you want, no matter how hard you try or how hard you work. But the only thing you can control is how hard you work when you show up. How hard you battle, short or not short.”
The Gophers, coming off two losses and having fallen from first to fourth in the national polls, look to be short-handed as well. On Tuesday, coach Bob Motzko said he is hopeful that forward Scott Reedy can return by Thursday from an injury that has sidelined him for the past three games. He is less optimistic about defenseman Matt Staudacher, who missed his first time in uniform last weekend after playing in his first 49 consecutive collegiate games.
After scoring 10 goals in a sweep of the Sun Devils a few weeks ago and scoring six in a split at Wisconsin, the Gophers managed three goals in a pair of home losses to Notre Dame. The anticipation is a more free-wheeling offensive mindset against an ASU team that is known for its goal scorers.
“They somehow always find a way to score. At least in the games we’ve played them and the games we’ve seen,” forward Brannon McManus said. “I thought we handled them pretty well, but if you give them a chance to score, they’ll score on you. They can score three goals right away, which is something to look out for, for sure.”
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Once known for gritty play, that some went further and called “chippy,” the Sun Devils have spent less time short-handed in 2021, which does not bode well for the Gophers. Against Notre Dame, Motzko’s team was 0-for-7 on the power play, and started this week with what is known as a “battle practice” to make a point about the every-night intensity needed to compete and succeed.
In Phase 1 of the season, the Gophers played on nearly every night of the week. After this weekend’s Thursday-Friday series, the remaining dozen regular season games are scheduled to all be traditional Friday-Saturday series. But in the wake of the losses to Notre Dame last weekend and the lessons learned from them, Motzko was anything but concerned about a short turnaround, and eager to return to the ice to correct the problems he saw versus the Irish.
“Let’s get out there,” Motzko said after last Saturday’s 2-1 loss. “Let’s play on Wednesday if we could. We know what we have to do.”
Thursday’s game is a 7 p.m. start, while the Friday rematch faces off at 4 p.m. FSN North will televise both, with Anthony LaPanta and Ben Clymer on the Thursday call and Charlie Beattie joining Clymer for the series finale. Streaming video is also available on BTN+. The radio team of Wally Shaver and Frank Mazzocco will broadcast both games on 1130 AM/103.5 FM and streamed on iHeartRadio.