After a below-average start to 2018 by their standards, the USU hockey team played some of their best hockey of the year over the weekend, winning all three of their games.
Despite starting 2018 with a 4-1-1 record, the Aggies have not been as dominant and thus dropped from the No. 2 rank in the West to No. 4 in the latest rankings, behind Northern Arizona, Northern Colorado and Williston. But a dominant 7-1 win over Wyoming, a 5-1 win over Colorado State and a 2-0 win against Colorado-Boulder could vault Utah State back up the rankings.
Defense was the dominant theme of the weekend the Aggies allowed just two goals, thanks in part to giving up just 25.3 shots per game. In those three games, USU had a +12 goal differential despite scoring just 14 goals
“We just really wanted to focus on locking on the D,” said forward Keegan O’Brien after the Wyoming game. “We did a really good job mostly because we had the puck in their zone a lot.”
USU goalkeeper Austin Willenborg, who has recorded two shutouts and saved 98 percent of opponent’s shots in his last four starts, said the defense and forwards have done “exactly what they needed to do” to make his job as easy as possible.
Head coach Jon Eccles said the solid team defense helped the Aggies wear out opposing players and then be able to strike back on offense.
“Everyone was getting back,” Eccles said. “Our back-checkers were getting back to help, pushing everything wide. I think our pressure in their O-zone also got them tired and so they just didn’t have the energy.”
Eccles praised the wire-to-wire dominance in the three games saying his team played “nine periods of hockey.” The great play has come at almost the perfect time according to assistant coach Joe Pfleegor.
“The nice thing is that we’re doing it at the right time,” Pfleegor said. “We’re getting close to regionals and nationals and that’s what you need when you go play in regionals and nationals because they’re going to be one-goal games. You’re not going to win games at nationals 5-0 or 6-1, they’re going to be one, maybe two-goal games.”
Because of the drop in the rankings and the potential loss of an automatic bid to nationals, the pressure to win is almost as high as it is in the postseason.
“Every game is critical at this point,” Eccles said. “We’ve dug ourselves a little bit of a whole because of the rankings. We’ve only lost four times to D2 teams but we’ve lost to the wrong teams and that comes back to bite you and it hurts you.”
The Aggies will begin postseason play next week. They will play in the Mountain West Collegiate Hockey League Championship. Their first game will be a home matchup against Montana Tech, with the following games played in Provo should Utah State win.
Following the Mountain West tournament, Utah State will play its final two regular season games in a home-and-home series against Weber State Feb. 16-17.