Illini take home conference title

By Jason Grodsky

The Illinois men’s hockey team went into the Central States Collegiate Hockey League tournament last weekend in Kalamazoo, Mich., with aspirations of taking home its first conference tournament title since 2003…and they did just that.

For the fourth straight season the American Collegiate Hockey Association’s No.4-ranked Illini met the No.2-ranked Ohio University in the league tournament championship game. But, unlike the last two seasons, the Illini came out victorious, upsetting the top-seeded Bobcats 2-1 in Sunday’s championship contest.

“It’s still a great honor to take home a first place trophy, especially against a great team like Ohio,” senior team captain Steve Krates said. “Everybody on the team from top to bottom played really well the entire weekend.”

The Illini advanced to the championship game with a pair of wins. Illinois defeated the seventh-seeded Eastern Michigan Eagles 8-5 in a high scoring shootout Friday to advance to the semi-finals. In the semi-final game the Illini pulled out a much closer 2-1 overtime win over third-seeded rival Iowa State.

With Ohio’s victories over Kent State and Robert Morris, the championship game everyone expected and wanted to see, was set.

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“We were all pretty excited to get a rematch against Ohio given what happened earlier in the year,” Krates said. “They left us with a bad taste in our mouths that we got from them earlier in the semester. We didn’t want to blow this opportunity against them because we knew we may not see them in the national tournament.”

The Illini took an early 1-0 lead in the championship game when soph Alex Park scored with assists from Krates and junior Mike Kincaid just two minutes into the first period.

The game would head into the third period tied at one after an Ohio goal midway through the second period, but it wouldn’t take long for the Illini to break the tie.

Freshman Johnny Liang found the back of the net on the power play to give the Illini a 2-1 lead. The Illini defense would control the rest of the way, limiting the Bobcats to only five shots throughout the third period on their way to the team’s first league tournament title in three years.

“It was an overwhelming feeling and a great feeling of excitement,” junior goaltender Mike DeGeorge said. “We are going to take this as a momentum booster and try to roll through the national tournament.”

While winning the league tournament was one of the Illini’s goals going into the season, the team still knows they haven’t achieved their ultimate goal: winning back-to-back ACHA National Championships.

“I don’t think this weekend changes anything,” DeGeorge said. “Our overall goal is to still win the National Championship. We played great this weekend, but we are still going to need to play better to win the National Championship.”

With the three wins the Illini improved to 27-5-1 heading into its final home games of the season against the ACHA’s Division II Minnesota Gophers. The games this upcoming weekend will be the Illini’s last opportunity to fine tune their game heading into the ACHA National tournament.

“We feel pretty good going into Nationals,” Krates said. “We have a lot to work on still, because with the top teams like Ohio and Penn State there is very little room for error. So we have to make sure we’re ready for them. We want to be playing the best hockey we can going into the national tournament.