After going unbeaten in the Beehive Showcase, the Utah State hockey team is in prime position to take over the top ranking in the West region in ACHA division 2.
The rankings, which are computer generated, will come out Wednesday morning. The Aggies are currently ranked second behind Northern Arizona University in the rankings that came out Nov. 15. NAU lost twice last week, one of those to the Aggies.
USU went 3-0-1 overall in the showcase playing four teams in four days. Three of those teams were in the top four in the rankings: NAU, the University of Northern Colorado and Williston State College. They beat NAU 4-2, UNC 4-3 in overtime and tied WSC 4-4. Their third win of the weekend came against 11th ranked Arizona State University.
After the five-minute overtime against WSC, a shootout was played that the Aggies won. But the ACHA does not count regular season shootouts toward team records or the rankings.
The offense for the Aggies was good during the showcase as it has been most of the season. But one of the underrated aspects of the team is its performance on defense.
Coming into the season, Eccles openly admitted his defense wasn’t where he’d like it to be and even said his team was “soft” on the back end. The team lost most of its top defensemen and had more new faces, youth and less depth than desirable.
After the showcase, the word Eccles is using to describe his defense’s play is “phenomenal.”
“They are starting to become seasoned with as many games as we’ve played,” Eccles said. “And right now, our eight defensemen are all playing well. We’ve got some youth, we’ve got some veterans, and they’re all working together.”
In their last seven games, Utah State is averaging 2.4 goals against per game and have allowed more than three just once. On the season, they are allowing just 2.8 goals per game – the second-best mark by an Aggie squad since 2012-13.
Great goalkeeping has played its part in USU’s defensive performance. Colter Pritchard and Austin Willenborg have played well even in the absence of the third member of the goalkeeper rotation, Christian Vivian.
“I’ve been playing pretty well,” said Pritchard after his start against ASU Friday, “but I feel like it’s just team camaraderie. Together we’re playing really well as a team and everything’s just clicking right now.”
Utah State head coach Jon Eccles, paraphrasing one of the players, said if the Aggies were playing the way they did at nationals, they would be playing in the finals for the national championship.
Eccles also said their performance was “probably the best we’ve done at the showcase.” In the past he has repeatedly compared these showcases to playing at nationals, where the teams competing in the national championship will end up playing five games in five days.
Eccles talked about the challenges of the showcase, such as fatigue, but credited his team with not letting that get to them and not giving up when down in games. USU was down two goals in two of their games – UNC and WSC– but came back in both games. Against UNC, the Aggies tied the game with 40 seconds on the clock after pulling their goalkeeper and scored the game-ending goal 41 seconds into overtime.
“It just shows character,” Eccles said, “the potential of just what this team can do when they play together.”