With an automatic bid to the ACHA nationals potentially on the line, Utah State needed a strong performance in their two games against BYU and Weber State. And they got just that.
The Aggies outscored both of their opponents by a combined score of 12-4 — the Cougars 9-3 Friday and the Wildcats 4-1 on Saturday. The two wins extended the team’s winning streak to nine games, with the last loss happening on Jan. 13.
Such a streak has been extremely timely as the Aggies needed a strong stretch to push them back into the top two in the ACHA West region after dropping as low as No. 4 following a shaky start coming out of the holiday break. Getting into the top two would give Utah State an automatic spot at nationals in Columbus, Ohio.
USU’s defense has been lock-down during the streak, allowing their opponents to shoot just 25.8 shots per game and giving up a mere 1.4 goals per game and recording two shutouts. Against BYU and Weber State, they allowed a combined 46 shots.
“The defense is playing phenomenal,” goalkeeper Austin Willenborg said. “All the goalies, the defensemen, the forwards coming back, backchecking, we’re doing everything right right now and we need to keep it going through the playoffs.”
Not only has the defense been shutting down opposing scoring opportunities, they’ve been creating some of their own. Defenseman David Higgs has scored eight goals in his last seven games with two games where he scored two goals.
“I got told by the coaches to shoot more and they just started going in,” Higgs said. “I’m just kind of riding a hot streak right now, trying to do my best.”
Aggies’ head coach Jon Eccles has been pleased with the two-way nature of some of his defensemen.
“It’s really awesome,” Eccles said of Higgs’ recent form on offense. “Because now instead of them having to worry about the three forwards, there’s a defenseman there that can put it in. Gavin [Lubin] has had some success as well so when you got two defensemen that are very active that are two-way players — not only are they defensive, but also offensive — it just put more pressure on the other teams.”
Following the drop from No. 2 to No. 4, the Aggies have responded well and done everything they can to get back to their previous standing.
“I think we did everything within our control to position ourselves for No. 2,” Eccles said. “We probably need a little luck with the computer and a little luck with the teams that are playing right now but we did everything that I thought we needed to, the boys stepped up and responded well.”
That luck may have materialized already for Utah State. The current no. 2 team, Northern Colorado, lost their game on Saturday 2-1 to the University of Colorado. But even before the result of that game was clear, Higgs said the Aggies deserved a top-two ranking.
“I don’t see how they keep us out of No. 2,” Higgs said. “With how our goalies played and how our team’s played, I think we’ve only lost in this second semester two games total, there’s no way we’re not in second place at least. I believe we’ve done enough.”
The only setbacks since the start of 2018 have been a 5-4 loss to Colorado and a 4-4 tie to Dakota College (a shootout was played that USU lost but regular season shootouts do not count toward final results in ACHA D2). Their official record since January is 12-1-1 with a 30-6-2 record for the season as a whole. The final rankings will be revealed Wednesday at 10 a.m.