Wildcat hockey not ready for nationals
After a weekend that would be the best reflection of how the Arizona hockey will perform in the ACHA National Tournament, the team was left with a chilling message:
They’re not ready.
The Wildcats lost all three games in their Oklahoma road trip. One was against Oklahoma — who they beat twice at home — and two were against Central Oklahoma, the reigning National Champions.
Nationals is still a world away, and the UA has three more games before they wind their season down and book flights to Columbus, Ohio, so there’s time to improve and reflect on what transpired in Oklahoma.
Arizona was ranked third in their conference, the Western Collegiate Hockey League, and were No. 15 in the nation before the roadtrip. They haven’t been on a long running streak or skid, which indicated they were due for these three consecutive losses.
What happened is the ‘Cats realized they cannot stand without Anthony Cusanelli and Chris Westlund.
For six games, top-six forwards Cusanelli and Westlund have been sidelined with apparently lower body and upper body injuries.
The two stand first and sixth in scoring, respectively, for the Wildcats. For Cusanelli, his point standing is much more important than Westlund’s is.
Cusanelli is, as the cliché goes, a pure goal-scorer. He scores goals, and Arizona can’t make up for what they lose when he’s out.
And for the most part, that’s understandable. Look at any hot NHL team; the loss of its leading goal-scorer would be detrimental. But the loss shouldn’t be as dreadful as Arizona makes it out to be.
In the games Arizona has played without “Cus,” their goal differential is –4. Their goal differential for the rest of the season with him is in the positives. The exact number isn’t necessary because of the vast difference in sample sizes, but the fact that they are positive with him and negative without is a red flag; they should still be able to outscore their opponents.
But moving on to Westlund, whose point standings were not as important as Cusanelli’s, his points aren’t as significant because his role as their most skilled, experienced and defensive forward is puck possession, something not seen through points. Time and time again in press conferences he is applauded for hard work that wins battles, faceoffs and ultimately gets pucks in the back of the net.
During a GCU game that Westlund was present for, Arizona’s fenwick was an impressive 59 percent. The next week, against Utah, when he was a scratch, it was 46 percent. Arizona controls the puck about 10 percent more with Westlund than without him.
A funny part about this stat is that it's dependent on shots on goal, so the significant drop is also due to the absences of Cusanelli’s multiple shots per game.
Couple those factors with being in another team’s facility after long travel days, and it’s not a good recipe.
There’s no cure-all that can make more Wildcats score and hold onto the puck better - that is, no cure-all beside the sight of Cusanelli and Westlund back in the lineup.
But things need to change when the two get back on the ice.
The team’s hopes of a strong finish to the season and a playoff run piggy-backs on some of the brightest stars not named Westlund and Cusanelli. Guys like Josh Larson and Justin Plumhoff have to shoulder more weight.
There needs to be more pressure on the depth guys to score. This was an issue back in late October, and it was glossed over with a few star-studded performances here and there, but it can’t stay that way. It’s not a problem fixed overnight, and unlike in professional hockey, there’s no last-minute trades or call-ups to add more offensive depth.
It’s a game of time, as it always is in college sports. It’s a waiting game of development and health. And unfortunately, it came at a dire time for the Wildcats. They would have had a difficult time on the Oklahoma road trip even if they were healthy.
While the timing is not ideal for the team in terms of the standings and morale, it was a rude awakening to what might lie ahead at the National Tournament.
The Wildcats have a week off before an away game on Feb. 10 against GCU. They will be back in Tucson for their final two games of the season against ASU on Feb. 16 and Feb. 18.
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