Sitting firmly number four in the current rankings, the Utah State University hockey team plans on ending the season with a bang.
Having played two-thirds of their regular season, the Aggies have cemented themselves as one of the top teams in the west. In the latest rankings released by the American Collegiate Hockey Association, USU was ranked fourth in the West region behind Williston State College, UNLV, and Northern Arizona University.
“We’re one of the top teams.” Eccles said, “Honestly, if we were to play UNLV now, I’m sure we’d beat them. If we had another shot at NAU, I think we’d beat them. Those are the top teams in my opinion.”
Utah State has just eight regular season games before the postseason starts in Ogden with the Mountain West Collegiate Hockey League championship. Soon after that, USU will travel to Northern Colorado for the Regional championship.
Part of coach Eccles’ confidence come from the team’s hard schedule. Half of Utah State’s 22 games have been against teams that currently have at least ten wins. In those games, USU has a record of 7-4 including a pair of dominating wins over fifth-ranked Northern Colorado.
USU’s harder schedule is part of their team’s philosophy and is one reason he feels his team could beat the teams ranked ahead of the Aggies.
“We try and schedule as hard a schedule as we can” Eccles said. “Because that’s what we’re going to play at nationals. We try and play teams that are going to challenge us and push us.”
The driving force behind the success of the season has undoubtedly been the Aggies defense. Led by a trio of dependable goalkeepers and veteran defenders, Utah State has let in just 59 goals in 22 games; the second fewest of any division two ACHA team. Eccles pointed out that the forwards have pitched in too.
“Our defense and our goaltending have been great,” Eccles said. “But also our offense has been great. It’s not just the defensemen back there. It’s also our forwards getting back, helping out, running our defensive zone coverage. Our defensive zone play has been much better than years past.”
This season the Aggies are allowing just 2.7 goals per game as opposed to 3.3 last season and 3.6 in 2014-15.
The biggest struggle of the season for Utah State, though, has been penalties. Utah State leads the ACHA in penalty minutes with 605. To that number in perspective, only one other division two team has accumulated more than 500 minutes. An inordinate amount of penalties have come from game misconduct. The type of penalties that result from fighting, taunting, and other extracurricular activities rather than your typical illegal body check, elbow, or high stick.
For Eccles, there aren’t many solutions to this problem this far into the season.
“If (the players) keep getting penalties” Eccles said , “they’re going to be a liability to us and then their time on the ice will be reduced.”
Despite the tendency of fans to look forward to postseason play, Utah State remains focused on the games they have left before then. Their next challenge will be the MLK Showcase which will be hosted by Northern Colorado from Jan. 13-16 where the Aggies will play four games in four days.