Men look to become conference champions

Daily Illini file photo

Daily Illini file photo

By Jason Grodsky

Despite falling just short of accomplishing its first goal of winning the Central States Collegiate Hockey League regular season title, the Illinois men’s hockey team now has its eyes set on the next best thing, the CSCHL conference tournament title.

After clinching second-place in the CSCHL with a 3-2 win last weekend, the Illini head north this weekend to Kalamazoo, Mich., to compete in the CSCHL tournament.

“Every game is going to be tough this time of year,” senior Mike Roesch said. “There are no easy games anymore. Every game is going to be a battle and it’s going to be good preparation for the national tournament.”

The second-seeded Illini will open up tournament play Friday afternoon against the seventh-seeded Eastern Michigan Eagles. Illinois defeated the Eagles 8-3 and 8-7 in the teams only meetings of the season back on Nov. 4-5 in Champaign.

Eastern Michigan (12-22-1) comes into the tournament ranked No.18 in the latest American Collegiate Hockey Association’s national ranking and are in need of a couple big wins to make it into the ACHA national tournament.

“They are a tough team,” senior team captain Steve Krates said. “Every team in our league is tough to play, especially when you play them as frequently as we do, because they understand our systems and how to play us. We’ve learned over this semester that you can’t overlook any team. We still have to go out and work hard, and if we can do that, the sky’s the limit.”

While the Eagles come in with hopes of qualifying for the national tournament the No.4-ranked Illini (24-5-1) enter with aspirations of winning the club’s fifth ever CSCHL tournament title and a chance at a possible rematch with No.3-ranked Ohio University.

The last three seasons the CSCHL conference tournament title has come down to the final game between the Bobcats and Illini. But only once has Illinois walked away with the crown, winning the title in 2003 with a 2-1 overtime victory.

But despite the fact the Illini have dropped the last two title games, they realize they have an advantage over most of the other teams going into the tournament.

“Having players who have been though the tournaments multiple times really helps,” Krates said. “You understand the pressure and get used to it. Having older guys that have been through it a lot helps the younger players and lets them know what to expect.”

Even though the Illini know they may have an advantage, the team still realizes that once tournament play starts everything that happened in the regular season goes out the window.

“It’s pretty much like a whole new season,” Krates said. “You play the regular season, but when you get to the league and national tournaments it’s all new. It doesn’t matter how you did during the regular season, it only matters how you do now.”

The CSCHL tournament will also provide the Illini with their last real tune-up for the ACHA national tournament and a chance to gather momentum.

“It’s a good warm up for Nationals,” Roesch said. “It’s a similar atmosphere but not as intense, and it provides a good test because it’s a couple of games in a short amount of time. It gives you a chance to see what type of shape you’re in and where everybody stands going into Nationals.”