Though it might have seemed like it, Greg Powers was not trolling Minnesota media members during his video conference on Tuesday afternoon, as he tooled around the Phoenix area with palm trees visible through the expansive moon roof of his vehicle.
"Gotta get home for the USA-Czech game, so I'm taking this from the car,'' the Arizona State hockey coach said, referencing the World Junior Championship.
It's understandable that Powers would be soaking up as much Arizona sun as he could. He and his Sun Devils recently endured a 36-day, 12-game road trip through Big Ten country and are about to embark on the first of two more 23-day stretches.
In a major nod to the coronavirus pandemic, Arizona State is playing its entire 28-game season on the road against a schedule of all Big Ten teams while adhering to the Big Ten's rigid COVID-19 testing protocols. The Sun Devils, an independent program, posted a 4-6-2 record during their Nov. 14-Dec. 18 stretch, closing strong after a 0-3-1 start.
They begin the next segment by facing the top-ranked Gophers on Sunday and Monday at 3M Arena at Mariucci, part of an eight-game stretch that finishes Jan. 21-22 with two more games against Minnesota.
"We're excited to get back out and play, but it's going to be a little bit bittersweet because we've had a nice 10 days back here,'' said Powers, whose team will fly to Minnesota on Thursday.
Powers and his team are especially excited to face the Gophers.
"We've watched a lot of their games throughout our 36-day trip, and man, they're really good,'' said Powers, whose Sun Devils have played the nation's top-ranked team only once before, when they were swept 3-2 and 3-0 at Ohio State early in the 2018-19 season. "Bob [Motzko] and his staff have done an incredible job getting that thing ramped up. It's going to be a huge challenge.''
Added Jax Murray, a former Elk River standout who's the only native Minnesotan on ASU's roster: "I know a bunch of guys on that team, so it's going to be fun.''
Anticipating a lift
The Sun Devils could receive a boost if senior forward Johnny Walker, who's scored 60 goals over the past three seasons, returns from a lower-body injury he suffered in the season-opening series at Michigan.
"Worst-case-possible, he'll be back for sure by Notre Dame [Jan. 9-10],'' Powers said. "There's still a good chance you can see him in Minnesota.''
Three of the Sun Devils' losses have been by one goal, and Powers can only imagine the difference a healthy Walker could have made.
"He's the leading returning goal-scorer in the country, and we think he'd probably have seven, eight goals by now,'' he said. "Sprinkle those in, and it's potentially a much different-looking record.''
With Walker out, the Sun Devils have received a lift from freshman forward Matthew Kopperud, who leads the team with seven goals and 13 points. Murray, a sophomore, has chipped in with eight points on five goals and three assists, while Demetrios Koumontzis, a Scottsdale, Ariz., native who played his senior season with Edina High School, also has eight points.
Murray credits the long road trip with developing camaraderie on the team.
"It was pretty fun. We got to spend a lot of time together,'' Murray said. "It was pretty much: Go to the rink every day and hang out in the hotel. We were dialed-in on the hockey aspect. … We found our stride and have been rolling since then.''
Murray, who honed his game with Fairbanks of the NAHL for two seasons before joining the Sun Devils last year, is eager to return to his home state for the first time since July, though social distancing still applies.
"It'll be nice to be back in Minnesota,'' he said, "but I just can't see family as much as I'd like, which is a bummer.''
Arena on the way; is conference next?
By playing the all-road, all-Big Ten schedule, the Sun Devils might be taking some lumps, but they're also making a case to for conference membership. They made the NCAA tournament in 2019, falling 2-1 to Quinnipiac in the first round, and were in line for a repeat appearance last March before sports were shut down.
The program received a big boost on Dec. 16, when the school announced all approvals have been received for a 5,000-seat, on campus arena that would house Sun Devils hockey among other ASU programs. Construction is scheduled to start in January, with December 2022 as the target date for completion.
"It's a game-changer from a program standpoint, what it does for our culture and being centrally located,'' said Powers, whose team plays in Oceanside Ice Arena, an off-campus facility with a capacity 747 in Tempe. "… The biggest detractor in some of our recruiting in not landing a few kids we really wanted was facility, and now that question's answered.
"Certainly, the last piece to solidify our value to a conference was a facility,'' Powers added. "We've proven we're going to be competitive and have earned our stripes on the ice.''
Murray reiterated his coach's thoughts.
"We're building a good culture,'' Murray said. "From what I hear from other players, there's a lot of people who are wanting to come here, especially with our new rink getting built. It's going to be a hot spot of where people want to go.''
An upset of the nation's top-ranked team would help the cause, too, and Arizona State will give it a try starting Sunday. They're stoked for the challenge.
"Our guys our bought-in,'' Powers said. "They're excited about what we can accomplish, and we have 16 games to build a case and try to make the NCAA tournament.''