Illini skate into break perfectly

By Jason Grodsky

The men’s hockey team is off to its best start in the history of Illinois hockey.

With a sweep of Michigan last weekend, the Illini improved their record to a perfect 18-0. The 18 wins to start a season surpassed the 2002-2003 team for the best start in the club’s history. The 2002-03 Illini won their first 17 games on the way to a team record 37 wins and a third-place finish in the American Collegiate Hockey Association.

“We’ve exceeded our expectations,” head coach Chad Cassel said. “If before the season you would’ve asked me what our record would be, I wouldn’t have said that we would have been 18-0 after the first semester.”

With a perfect record, Illinois finds itself in the same place it ended last year. Ranked No.1 in the ACHA, receiving all but two of the 31 first-place votes, the Illini have won 24 consecutive games dating back to last year’s ACHA National Championship run.

Illinois’ offense has been its key to success. The Illini have outscored opponents 109-29, and are averaging just over six goals per game. They have been lead by last year’s ACHA Player of the Year senior forward Mike Roesch, who once again leads Illinois and the ACHA in points with 43.

But Roesch hasn’t been the only one responsible for Illinois’ high-octane offense. The Illini have also received big contributions from a group of young players. Sophomore forward Nick Fabbrini and freshmen forwards Johnny Liang and Jason Nemeth have all provided the Illini with steady offensive production. Liang leads the team in goals with 19.

“We graduated quite a few key players off of last year’s team,” Cassel said. “We knew that we were going to need the newcomers to step in and play well and they have done that, and I think that’s why we’ve continued to have the success.”

While the offense has been performing at an all-time high, the defense has quietly put together a solid first semester. In seven of Illinois’ games, the Illini defense has allowed only 18 shots or less.

Combined with its good defense, Illinois has received solid goaltending from last year’s ACHA Tournament Most Valuable Player, junior Mike DeGeorge. While DeGeorge has had his moments of vulnerability during the season, he still ranks among the top goaltenders in the ACHA with a goals-against average of 1.56 and a 92.6 percent save percentage.

“We’ve had a great team effort overall,” Cassel said. “It starts in net, and Mike has played very well for the most part. When he has struggled, his teammates have picked him up, and he has picked his teammates up as well.”

Of the Illini’s 18 wins 10 have come against ranked teams, including two dominant wins over seventh-ranked Lindenwood University and two big road victories over ninth-ranked Robert Morris College.

But Illinois, at times this year, has struggled against weaker teams and has allowed games to be closer than the Illini would like. It took overtime to pull out a 3-2 win in the game at Kent State to get a Central States Collegiate Hockey League conference victory.

“We had a couple tough wins,” sophomore Drew Heredia said. “It’s hard to stay undefeated even if you’re playing lower level teams. We’ve had a good consistent effort and now have a big second semester.”

The task at hand now for the Illini is maintaining the momentum they have gathered in their first semester of play. But keeping that momentum won’t be easy. The Illini’s first games after break are on the road against Ohio University and Penn State.

“It’s going to be difficult to maintain all the momentum,” Roesch said. “Everyone knows that the first two weekends back for us are going to be the biggest games of the year. We have to come out with the mindset that we’re playing two of the best teams in the league, Ohio and Penn State. We have to come out and work hard when we get back from break.”

The back-to-back road trip at the beginning of January will be the toughest test of the year. CSCHL rival Ohio (16-4-1) is tied for second with the Illini in the CSCHL conference with 32 points, and is ranked third in the ACHA standings. The last time the Bobcats played the Illini was in last season’s CSCHL conference tournament; it was also the last time Illinois lost.

The two-game set at Ohio on Jan. 6-7 will be a good warm up for the Illini the following weekend at 4th-ranked Penn State (14-4-2). The games will mark the rematch of last year’s ACHA National Championship game, in which the Illini upset the Nittnay Lions 4-3.

“We are coming back on New Year’s Day to practice and get ready,” DeGeorge said. “These are our first real tests of next semester, and our 18-0 record means nothing if we don’t cap them off. We’re going to have to use the 18 wins and the team chemistry that were getting to just roll right through them.”