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Work still ahead for Arizona State hockey before Division I transition

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TEMPE – As Arizona State’s hockey club prepares to jump to NCAA Division I, there’s still serious business ahead: defending its ACHA national championship and meeting rival Arizona in two final regular-season club games.

The rivalry hasn’t been much of a fight since 2009 as the No. 1 Sun Devils (31-3-1) have gone 45-1 against the Wildcats (11-20-3).

Though Arizona State has owned Arizona over the last five years, the Sun Devils place a high priority on their games against their Tucson rivals.

“It’s been the biggest eight games of the year besides the last one of the year: the national championship,” senior forward Faiz Khan said.

The teams play Friday and Saturday in Tucson.

“It’s a big weekend for us just to seal off the season before nationals and just to seal off the last season (before) this organization is going to be a Division I club,” sophomore defenseman Connor Schmidt said.

Khan made his mark on the rivalry early in his first season at Arizona State.

He recalled his game-winning goal from the Sun Devils 3-1 victory over the Wildcats Nov. 3, 2012.

“It was 1-1 going to the third period and I happened to break up a play and got in one-on-one with the goalie and put it in for the game-winner,” Khan said.

Expect some added fuel to the Wildcats’ fire since the Sun Devils announced the move to NCAA competition.

“We’d like to think U of A has a little jealousy with the whole rivalry and us going D-I,” Schmidt said.

The rivalry won’t be over after this weekend, however.

Arizona State will transition next season and play both NCAA and ACHA teams, including Arizona, before fully joining NCAA Division I.

“I think that’ll be a forever-lasting rivalry just like in every other sport here,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt will be around for that transition and thinks his team will adjust well to the higher level of competition.

“There needs to be some changes but I look around and see the talent and the great group of guys we have here and I don’t think it’ll be extremely hard to convert to Division I,” Schmidt said. “It’ll be hard work but everyone will buy in. It’ll be fine.”

Schmidt likes his team’s chances this weekend and in the national tournament.

“We know that it’s going to take a lot to beat us,” Schmidt said. “To be honest, right now our confidence is we can only beat ourselves.”