The Arizona Wildcats hockey team has started the 2013-14 season with nine consecutive road games, and seven of those games have come against teams ranked in the top 11 in the ACHA. Last weekend's series against No. 3 Oklahoma may have been a weekend that turned things around for this team moving forward.
"It showed we can compete with anybody," said head coach Sean Hogan. "We beat the No. 3 team in the country and then swept 'em."
The Cats were down 3-1 heading into the third period of the first of two games against OU after having been destroyed the previous day by Central Oklahoma.
"Friday and Saturday we were a whole new team. I felt like we were outplaying them. I told them 'that's the number three team in the country and you guys are outplaying them.' It wasn't like a fire and brimstone thing, I was just telling 'em we're just as good as these guys."
Andrew Murmes scored just five seconds into the third period, and Arizona controlled the game the rest of the way. Murmes scored again late in the third period to send it to overtime, and almost scored again in OT, but was disallowed because the refs felt like he kicked the puck into the net.
"It doesn't matter now because we scored a minute after that," joked Hogan.
The beginning of the year schedule-wise is always tough for this team, because the Tucson Convention Centerdoesn't have ice down for them to host games, or even practice in Tucson. This team drives to Chandler each night during the early part of the year to practice.
"We have to do it, everybody else doesn't," explained coach Hogan. "We get on the ice right after Labor Day. We practice about three weeks straight. Then the ice comes out right when the season starts, so every year we'll play NAU first and then ASU the week after that."
"The last two weeks are a grind. It's a mental grind on our guys. Cuz you're practicing 10:30 at night in Chandler, by the time you get back here it's 2:30 in the morning, and some guys have 8 A.M. classes. To do it again, they're at each other's throats."
The first weekend at NAU went as expected, with two wins over a really good Division 2 team. And then the next week at ASU, that also went as expected, with the Sun Devils dominating the Wildcats.
"I think we have a mental block against ASU that we're trying to work on," said Hogan. Arizona has not beaten ASU in 34 straight games now dating back to 2009.
The last two weeks at Liberty and then the three games in Oklahoma City really showed what this team is capable of though. Liberty at the time was the No. 10 team in the country, and the Cats split the series, and coach says that they really should have swept them had it not been for some players losing control of their emotions in the Saturday game.
"We got caught up emotionally in some stuff on Saturday," said Hogan. "It was 3-2 in the third, we had a power play, and we missed an open net to make it 3-3. After we missed that we took a penalty and emotionally we lost control."
With the crazy practice schedule, the three-game trip to Oklahoma came at a bad time, especially that Thursday night game. The team was at the Tucson Airport at 3:30 in the morning that Thursday, and had to play No. 11 Central Oklahoma that night. The Bronchos beat the Wildcats 8-1 that night, but that didn't get the team down heading into two games against No. 3 Oklahoma.
"We're progressing pretty good," said Hogan. "We're in a good place right now, feeling pretty good about ourselves."
If the ACHA computer rankings were still a thing, they would show that Arizona has played the second-toughest schedule so far in ACHA. So being above .500 makes Sean Hogan happy heading into this huge chunk of home games.
It hasn't all been pretty though. One of the biggest issues facing this Arizona team so far has been the amount of penalties they've taken. They could easily be 6-3 or 7-2 if not for taking some really dumb penalties against Liberty and ASU.
"Against NAU a lot of penalties were called, and a lot of them weren't called when we were playing Liberty and ASU. We're preaching to be more physical for sure. We're learning what's going to be called a penalty and what's not going to be called a penalty. But we're not going to stop playing physical, we're just going to do it the right way."
The one series that was broadcast online for free was the Liberty series, and especially Friday, there was some showboating from the Wildcats players, especially when Arizona got out to a big lead. This kind of new personality and willingness to fight for wins may be what this team has been missing for the last five or so years.
"I do think we have a good ability to overcome adversity, which we struggled with my first two years here," said Hogan. "If we got down in a game, we got down on each other a lot. We're working on changing that culture, and I hope Friday we broke that."
"On Saturday, we knew we were going to win, and we just did it. I think it comes from the leaders, the captains, but it comes from the new guys who have had championship experience." Arizona has put an emphasis on recruiting players that have won championships at some level of competition so the new guys have that knack for finding ways to win.
With this new emphasis comes a deeper team, and not having the issues of last year's team where one line did all the scoring, all the time. While Ansel Ivens-Anderson and Andrew Murmes are indeed back after last year's success, they're not necessarily on the same line all the time.
"We're competing every week to see who's going to be the guy, whether if it's a forward, defenseman or goalie. We split up Ansel and Murmes. Friday night against Oklahoma it was Murmes-O'Dea-Ferreira and Saturday it was the same. The second line was Wilkinson-Parker-Ivens-Anderson. We had six guys out with injury this weekend, including two of the top four defensemen. It was HUGE wins for the guys who didn't play a lot previously."
"Murmes is such a good offensive player, that guys who play with him get a ton of opportunities. Ansel's the same way too. You'd like them together when you can, but whoever gets to play with them get more chances."
Starting goaltender has been a moving target as well. Senior goalie Steven Sisler started and won the two games against Oklahoma, making him the leading candidate going forward into this season. But coach said that they'll be riding the hot-hand pretty much the entire season, whether it be Sisler or Dylan Hojnacki.
A 5-4-0 start is probably better than what coach Hogan could have expected heading into this stretch of home games. It's been an interesting few weeks on the road, but with a regular practice schedule and not having to travel around Arizona and the entire country, there's some huge upside out there.