Illini, Olympic fans alike should appreciate tournament hockey

By Alex Roux

This time of year can be depressing.

Classes are in full swing, and getting to them requires slogging through inches of snow, slush or puddles. Things can seem gray and bleak.

Luckily, a unique brand of hockey has swooped into the nation’s conscience, saving us from February monotony. Olympic hockey, the headline sport of the 2014 Sochi games, has rejuvenated a sense of pride within Americans that seems to pop up every time the Olympics or World Cup comes around.

The 4-0 start by the U.S. hockey team certainly helped spark the excitement of the tournament, but I think the most intriguing aspect of these games is the format. Now that the qualifying rounds are over, it’s win or go home for the remaining countries. Had the U.S. lost to the Czech Republic on Wednesday, they’d have been eliminated. 

This is a brand of hockey that the casual NHL fan isn’t used to seeing. These do-or-die games only occur in Game 7 of a playoff series. Now in the medal rounds, every game is Game 7, and everything is on the line. The NHL playoffs can be long and drawn out, but the Olympics are compelling and instantly rewarding.

The nationwide spike in hockey interest clearly did not spare our campus, as evidenced by bars packed with students that witnessed the U.S. victory over Russia at 6 a.m. last Saturday. And with the hockey fervor at an all-time high, the good news that the Illinois hockey team received Monday night couldn’t have come at a better time.

The Illini received word that they had been selected as one of the final seeds for the ACHA national tournament, which is collegiate club hockey’s equivalent to NCAA basketball’s March Madness. The 20-team tournament is single-elimination, just like March Madness and the medal rounds of the Olympics. Illinois barely squeaked into the tournament, grabbing the final spot with a record of 19-16-2.

Come March 7, it will be the Illini’s turn to play high-stakes hockey when they take on Arizona in the first round. Don’t count this team out when the pressure’s on. With goal differential factoring into the selection process for the tournament, the Illini needed to beat Indiana by a large margin this past weekend to have a chance at being chosen — and they did.

Illinois topped Indiana 12-0 in the first game and 6-3 in the second. This throttling of the Hoosiers was good enough to bump the Illini above No. 18 Buffalo for the final spot in the tournament.

The beauty of a single-elimination tournament is that any team can go on a run. If the Illini were playing a seven-game series against higher-seeded teams, they might be in trouble. In one game, anything can happen.

Forward Matt Welch is well aware of the significance of each game and, as a senior, is ready to take advantage of his last chance at a championship.

“This is our last shot at winning nationals, and the seniors are taking it upon ourselves to pull through for the team,” Welch said. “Since the tournament is win or go home, the excitement is a lot greater than a regular season game.”

Hockey fans, enjoy the upcoming win-or-go-home action. It doesn’t come around every year.

Alex is a sophomore in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] and