Illinois on rise, ready to play St. Louis

By Jason Grodsky

It will be a couple of firsts for the 2006 Illinois men’s hockey club this weekend.

Coming off two season-opening wins at home against Oakland University the American Collegiate Hockey Association’s No. 3-ranked Illini will take its show on the road for the first time this season when it travels to St. Louis to face-off against the St. Louis University Billikens in two games on Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 8:15 p.m.

“It’s always tough playing on the road and they’re very important games,” head coach Chad Cassel said. “St. Louis always plays us tough, especially down there so we are going to have our work cut out for us.”

Not only will it be the Illini’s fist road test of the season, but it will be Illinois’ first conference game of the year in the Central States Collegiate Hockey League.

Last season the Illini finished second in the CSCHL, just six points behind Ohio University for the regular season conference championship. The Illini are picked to finish second in the conference again this year after receiving two less first place votes than first-place Ohio in the CSCHL coaches poll, despite being ranked a spot ahead of the Bobcats in the ACHA national rankings.

“You can’t blame them for picking them ahead of us,” junior team captain Drew Heredia said. “We’ve finished behind Ohio in the league during the regular season the last two years by one or two games. We’re just out to prove people wrong and set up and take over the number one spot.”

Illinois got off to a great start last season in conference play, winning its first eight games on its way to a 13-2-1 regular season conference record. With most of last year’s team returning, the Illini are looking for a similar start to conference play again this year.

“We need to come out and set the standard for everyone else,” freshman forward Brad Hoelzer said. “We want to be at the top and have everyone chasing us.”

While Illinois is projected to finish close to the top in the CSCHL, its first conference opponent, St. Louis is picked to finish dead last.

Last year the Billikens won just one conference game and only four games overall. St. Louis had trouble scoring goals on opponents, netting just 24 goals all season in conference games while allowing 112.

So far St. Louis hasn’t shown much improvement from last season. In their first two games of the season at No. 4-ranked Ohio, the Billikens were pummeled 12-2 and 11-1.

“There is no doubt they are definitely down a little bit from where they’ve been in the past,” Cassel said. “They have brought in a few good players and will be young, but they always play us tough, especially there.”

Over the last three seasons Illinois has a 9-1 record against St. Louis and have outscored the Billikens 64-to-16. The Illini’s last loss to the Billikens came back on February 7, 2004, in St. Louis when the Billikens squeaked out a 3-2 win.

“We’re going to make sure everyone is ready and that we don’t take anyone lightly,” Heredia said.

“We put up a sign in the locker this year about top ten teams getting upset. We want to make sure we make a statement so that doesn’t happen.”