PRESCOTT VALLEY – The puck drops for the second annual Desert Hockey Classic when NCAA Division I No. 18-ranked St. Cloud State (Minnesota) faces the University of Connecticut at 4 p.m. today, Dec. 30, at Prescott Valley Event Center (PVEC).
First-year NCAA D-I member Arizona State, the four-team tournament’s host, follows versus Brown University (Rhode Island) at 7 p.m.
On Saturday, Dec. 31, the winner of St. Cloud State (8-7-1 overall record)-UConn (6-6-6) takes on the victor of ASU (7-13-0)-Brown (3-9-0) for the championship. The losers play a consolation (see tournament glance, page 4B).
ASU assistant media relations director Mitchell Terrell said the Classic brings “elite-level collegiate hockey” to PV. Michigan Tech won the inaugural Classic in January 2015 at Gila River Arena in Glendale. UConn and ASU return from last year’s field.
“This tournament is going to come down to what team is going to be more prepared to play, and who’s going to play with more passion,” St. Cloud State assistant coach Mike Gibbons said.
Here’s a breakdown for each team in this year’s Classic:
The resilient Sun Devils enter a first-ever meeting against Brown on a program-best three-game winning streak.
Halfway through the season, Arizona State dresses six players with double-digit points, including forwards Robbie Baillargeon (15 points), Tyler Busch (12), Wade Murphy (12), David Norris (12), Louie Rowe (11) and Dylan Hollman (10). Senior goaltender Robert Levin, who’s won two straight, has a combined 1.00 goals against average and a .964 save percentage.
“We want to do everything we can to win our tournament,” coach Greg Powers said. “And it’s really the only trophy that our team gets to play for all year, because we’re not in a conference yet and we’re not a postseason team yet.”
Terrell said four of the Sun Devils’ final seven opponents this season are currently ranked in the U.S. College Hockey Online (USCHO) Top 20 poll. They are No. 2 Denver, No. 9 Ohio State, No. 14 Quinnipiac and No. 16 Western Michigan. A potential matchup with St. Cloud State on Saturday would make it five.
“This tournament will help us in the second half [of the season], getting that competitiveness and playing with that desperation right away [in trying to get to the championship game],” Baillargeon said.
ST. CLOUD STATE
With a 4-2 win over No. 20 Nebraska-Omaha Dec. 10, St. Cloud State arrives in PV with four wins against nationally-ranked teams this season.
Junior forward Judd Peterson leads 2016 national tournament qualifier St. Cloud in goals scored with nine. He also has four assists. Peterson said the Huskies are fresh after a two-week holiday respite.
“Having that many days off kind of gave everyone a mental break away from hockey,” he added.
Sophomore forward Mikey Eyssimont (pronounced EH-SEE-mont), the squad’s points’ leader with eight goals and six assists, said the Huskies are focused, too.
“This is definitely a business trip for us,” Eyssimont said. “We want to win this tournament and have a good start to the second half of the season.”
The Huskies will go without coach Bob Motzko and defenseman Jack Ahcan (pronounced UH-Shawn). Motzko is coaching Team USA at the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Junior Championship this weekend in Toronto. Ahcan, who has three goals and a team-high 10 assists for St. Cloud, plays for Team USA.
Connecticut finished third at the Desert Hockey Classic in 2015. UConn hasn’t played since Dec. 9, when it beat UMass, 3-1.
UConn is missing leading scorer Tage Thompson (Team USA) and starting goaltender Adam Huska (Team Slovakia), who are also competing at the IIHF World Junior Championship.
Terrell said UConn senior net-minder Rob Nichols, who has a 2-3-3 record this season, represents the Huskies’ only line of defense between the pipes.
Brown won for only the third time in 12 games this season on Dec. 10, downing Rensselaer (New York), 6-3.
Six different Bears players contributed in the victory. Junior forward Sam Lafferty, who leads the team in points with 14 (three goals and 11 assists), scored a goal. Brown averages 2.17 goals and 28.3 shots per game.
Follow Doug Cook on Twitter @dougout_dc. Reach him at 928-445-3333 ext. 2039, or 928-642-7865.