Hockey keeps up on-ice excellence

Illinois hockey club forward Drew Heredia wins a faceoff against Delaware in the season opener Sept. 30. The Illini won both games against Delaware to start the season 2-0. Adam Nekola

Illinois hockey club forward Drew Heredia wins a faceoff against Delaware in the season opener Sept. 30. The Illini won both games against Delaware to start the season 2-0. Adam Nekola

By Jason Grodsky

The Illini men’s hockey team has picked up right where it left off last season.

The American Collegiate Hockey Association I-A defending national champions remained undefeated and maintained their No. 1-ranking in the ACHA after sweeping a pair of games against Michigan State at home this past weekend.

With victories of 8-0 and 8-2 last Friday and Saturday night, the Illini head into their first road games of the season at Robert Morris College with an 8-0 record.

The 8-0 start is the club’s best start to a season since the 2002-2003 season, when the Illini started with an amazing 17-0 start. But Illinois head coach Chad Cassel feels there is still plenty of room for improvement.

“I like where we are at so far,” Cassel said. “We are a pretty gifted team offensively and that comes naturally to us, but we definitely still need to continue to improve defensively to continue our success.”

The Illini have been outstanding on both the power play and penalty kill so far this season, scoring 24 times on the power play and allowing only one goal, while being short-handed.

“In hockey, special teams are big, and we’ve obviously done well on the power play,” Cassel said. “We’re pretty talented up front, so we are able to work the puck around well and give ourselves good opportunities to score.”

Senior goaltender Mike DeGeorge has posted four shutouts in seven starts, and according to Cassel has been key to the Illini’s penalty kill.

“Mike’s picked up a lot of the slack for us in net and made some key saves for us,” Cassel said. “When the games have been close and we are struggling a little, he seems to come up with the big save.”

The Illini have also received a boost from the younger players on the team. Freshman forwards Johnny Liang, Jason Nemeth and Jordan Pringle have combined for 37 points already this season, while freshmen Mark Magas and Pat Higley have provided Illinois with solid defense.

“Our freshmen have been stepping up,” Cassel said “When you combine that with our solid core of returning players that’s why we’re having the success we’re having.”

Of the Illini’s first eight wins, four have come against ranked opponents, including two victories a piece against No. 13 Delaware and sixth-ranked Lindenwood University. But the Illini have yet to play away from the “Big Pond” at home.

Their first road trip of the season will be this weekend when they visit Central States Collegiate Hockey League opponent Robert Morris College for a two-game set Friday and Saturday night. But Cassel is confident that the team will adjust well to the change in scenery.

“It’s much more difficult going from a large ice surface to a smaller surface than it is vise-versa because things happen a lot quicker,” Cassel said “But we’re ready and excited to face our first big road test.”

The Illini will be looking to come away with a pair of CSCHL conference victories and remain atop the ACHA.

Robert Morris (7-2) enters the weekend ranked ninth in the ACHA, riding a five-game winning streak, and seeking its first conference victories this year.