Hockey survives rocky weekend

By Jason Grodsky

It wasn’t pretty, but the Illinois men’s hockey club got the job done.

The second-ranked Illini survived not one but two upset scares over the weekend against American Collegiate Hockey Association Division I newcomer Liberty University. The Illini beat the Flames 3-1 Friday night and came from behind to win 3-2 in overtime on Saturday night at the University of Illinois Ice Arena.

“The guys continued to battle, and no one really panicked when we were down going into the third period,” head coach Chad Cassel said. “We were able to win even though we weren’t playing our best.”

Liberty quickly proved why it was moved up from the Division II ranks of the ACHA this season when it took the ice on Friday. The 15th-ranked Flames scored halfway through the first period to take a 1-0 lead over the Illini and caused problems for the Illini power play all night.

Illinois was unable to convert any of its first seven power play opportunities in the game. Freshman forward J.J. Heredia finally broke through Liberty’s penalty kill 5:30 into the third period to tie the game 1-1. Heredia would add an assist on Illini sophomore forward Jordan Pringle’s go-ahead goal a minute later to seal the victory. It was his second goal of the game.

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“J.J. played outstanding,” Cassel said. “He’s been playing great for us all year and came up with three big goals over the weekend. Hopefully he will continue to play great for us.”

Heredia’s heroics would continue into Saturday’s game with a little help from his older brother, junior forward and team captain Drew Heredia.

Trailing 2-1 midway through the third period, Drew Heredia found the back of the net for his sixth goal of the season to tie the game 2-2 and force the Illini’s first overtime game of the season.

The overtime would not last long, though, as J.J. Heredia capped off the Illini’s comeback with his third goal of the weekend and seventh of the season just 58 seconds into the extra period.

“We have a lot of fight and don’t quit,” J.J. Heredia said. “We skate a lot in practice to have fresh legs in the third period, and it has paid off for us in these games.”

The close wins keep the Illini unbeaten at 8-0 on the season.

Illinois will take its undefeated record on the road this weekend for a pair of games against Central States Collegiate Hockey League opponent Western Michigan (10-1).

“We’re going to have a huge test on the road this weekend,” Cassel said. “Western Michigan has really turned their program around. They have some great young, talented players and are going to be excited to play us.”

The Illini and Stallions are tied for second place in the CSCHL standings with eight points, but both Western Michigan and Illinois have played four less games than conference leader Ohio University. Illinois defeated Western Michigan 8-0 and 4-2 in two games at home last season.

“They are tied with us in the league standings, so we can’t take them lightly,” Drew Heredia said. “The last couple years they have struggled, but they are getting better, and we have to come out hard.”