Illini come home, face Mich.

With extra pressure on, the Illini try to keep their lead after Indiana pulled their goalkeeper in an attempt to close the 2-1 gap in the third period during Illinois´ game against Indiana University on Saturday, November 12, at the University Ice A Adam Babcock

With extra pressure on, the Illini try to keep their lead after Indiana pulled their goalkeeper in an attempt to close the 2-1 gap in the third period during Illinois´ game against Indiana University on Saturday, November 12, at the University Ice A Adam Babcock

By Jason Grodsky

After coming off its first out-of-state road games at Kent State, the Illinois men’s hockey team returns home this weekend to take on Michigan.

The Illini’s trip to Kent State was a successful one, as they swept the Golden Flashes in two Central States Conference Hockey League conference games on Nov. 18-19, moving them into a tie with Ohio University for first place in the CSCHL conference.

But the sweep of Kent State was not as easy of a task as the Illini thought it would be.

The Golden Flashes came into the games with something to prove, outplaying the Illini early in Friday night’s contest and taking a 1-0 lead heading into the second period. But the Illini would battle back, tying the game early in the second period on a power-play goal by senior assistant captain Andy Lubesnick, and then moments later taking the lead when freshman Jordan Pringle found sophomore forward Kevin Wicklin for his third goal of the season.

Kent State, however, would not give up the game easily, scoring late in the third period to force the Illini into their first overtime game of the season.

The overtime would not last long. Starting on a power play because of a late third period penalty on Kent State, it took only 59 seconds for Illini freshman Johnny Liang to light the lamp, and send the Illini into Saturday night’s game with a 3-2 victory.

“We have to come out and player better on Friday nights,” sophomore forward Joey Resch said. “We have to play better than we did and have to come ready to play, especially on road games.”

The Illini carried the momentum from the overtime victory and were able to play much better Saturday night, scoring early and often, forcing Kent State head coach to pull starting goaltender Steve Trobenter in favor of freshman backup Kyle Nova early in the first period.

But the switch in goaltenders did not slow the Illini’s offense down one bit. At the end of the first period the Illini led 6-1 and were a perfect four-for-four on the power play.

Illinois would notch one more goal in the second by senior captain Steve Krates to allow the Illini to cruise to a 7-1 victory and improve their record to a perfect 16-0.

“Anytime you can get two wins on the road that gives you momentum,” head coach Chad Cassel said. “We have to continue to work hard and get better. We still have a ton of areas we can improve, and the guys have to stay hungry. We need to have a good week of practice and finish the semester off on the right foot.”

The Illini have put themselves into good position to make another run at a championship this season. Their 16-0 start to the season has them ranked No.1 in the American Colligate Hockey Association and is their best start since the 2002-2003 season, when they started 17-0 on their way to a 37-2 season.

“We haven’t won anything yet,” Cassel said “Our first goal is to win the league championship, and we have put ourselves in a good spot for that.”

After a weeklong rest, the Illini return home for their final games before winter break to battle non-conference opponent Michigan on Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. at the University of Illinois Ice Arena.

“Having a week off was good for people who had injuries,” Krates said. “It gave us time to relax, and helped us put everything into perspective. It makes us that much hungrier to get back onto the ice. We should come out harder than we have all year.”

The Division-II Wolverines handed Illinois its first loss of the season last year, beating the Illini 4-3 Oct. 15, 2004, at Illinois. The Illini ended up splitting the series, pounding Michigan 14-1 the next night.

“They came in here and beat us last year,” Cassel said. “We have our work cut out for us, because every week someone is trying to knock us off. This is a weekend Michigan is going to be looking forward to playing us, and they’re going to be excited to come here.”