Illini men’s hockey club opens 50th season Friday

Illini mens hockey club opens 50th season Friday

By Jason Grodsky

The Illinois men’s hockey club will open its 50th season of Illini hockey Friday at 7 p.m. when the team hits the ice at the Illinois Ice Arena to take on the No. 18-ranked Oakland University (Mich.) Golden Grizzlies.

The Illini start the season ranked third in the American Collegiate Hockey Association, and return 19 players from last season’s team that came in third in the ACHA National Tournament and finished with a 32-6-1 record – the second best record in club history.

Illinois enters the season with one of the most explosive offenses in the entire ACHA.

Last season the Illini out-scored their opponents 197-to-78 and averaged just over five goals per game with all but one of its top scorers returning this season.

Highlighting the Illini returnees on offense are junior forwards Johnny Liang and Nick Fabbrini.

In his first season as a part of the Illini hockey club, Liang posted a team-high 32 goals and 62 points in 38 games, while Fabbrini finished with 24 goals and 43 points in 37 games.

“We have a strong nucleus back and a great freshman class,” head coach Chad Cassel said. “Our strength is definitely at forward and as long as we work hard and continue to improve I think we’ll have a good chance of making another run for a league and national title.”

Offense isn’t the only place the Illini will be talented. Senior goaltender Mike DeGeorge returns to mind the net for the Illini.

After a breakout season in 2004-05, in which he was named the ACHA National Tournament’s Most Valuable Player, DeGeorge continued his success last season posting a career best 1.87 goals-against average and recording a career-best 28 wins en route to earning him a selcection on the ACHA’s All-American Second Team.

“I obviously have high expectations (for) myself and…the team,” DeGeorge said. “Being a senior, the leadership role is on my shoulders and it’s my class that has to come through this year. We expect a lot out of this team because we want to win another championship before we graduate.”

While the Illini return a handful of talented players, it will be the ability to replace the three players it lost from last season, Mike Roesch, Steve Krates and Andy Lubesnick, that will determine how far this team will go.

In their four years, Roesch, Krates and Lubesnick led the Illini to a Central States Collegiate Hockey League regular season and playoff championship, an ACHA National Championship, and numerous league and team awards.

“We lost two captains from last year’s team and it’s tough to replace them,” DeGeorge said. “But the good news is Steve and Andy are both back helping out as coaches and helping to train new leaders for the team.”

Among those who will be looked to step in and fill the holes left by the departed seniors will be freshman Matt Jennings, who is among seven new players the Illini added to its senior-laden roster for this season.

“Matt is a forward that is incredibly skilled and very smart,” Cassel said. “I believe he will be able to step in and play well for us. It’s tough for any freshman to make the adjustment, but so far they have shown they are going to be able to step in and play well.”

Jennings and the rest of the Illini will get their first chance to showcase their talent when they face off against Oakland tomorrow night.

Oakland comes into this weekend’s games with a 2-0 record after upsetting then No. 7-ranked Michigan-Dearborn in a pair of overtime games.

It will be the first ever meeting between the Illini and the Grizzlies, who moved up from their ACHA Division II standing to Division I after winning the Division II National Championship last season.

“We can’t wait to play,” DeGeorge said. “We have been practicing for a month getting banged up and bruised and now we are just getting ready for the payoff. But Oakland will be tough and they will be out to prove something.”