lllini lead rankings, prepare to avoid upset against Bison

By Jason Grodsky

The Illinois men’s hockey club is in a familiar place atop the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) national rankings.

The Illini jumped from the No. 2 spot in the rankings to the No. 1 slot, leaping past Rhode Island following the Rams’ first loss of the season at Delaware. Illinois retained 23 of the possible 38 first-place votes in the poll released last Friday after beginning the season 10-0.

Following the announcement of their No. 1 ranking, the Illini decisively won a pair of games last weekend against Eastern Michigan to move to a perfect 12-0.

The only other team at the ACHA Division-I level that is undefeated is No. 4-ranked Oklahoma at 13-0.

“It’s been our goal all year to be No. 1,” junior forward and team captain Drew Heredia said.

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“We were ranked No. 1 last year all through first semester and we’ve been up in the rankings before so everyone is always gunning for us because we’re one of the top teams in the league. We should be able to handle it,” he added.

This is the third time in the program’s history that the team has been the top-ranked team in the nation, and the first time since Dec. 16, 2005.

The Illini finished the 2004-05 season at the top after winning its first ACHA National Championship, then began the 2005-06 season ranked No. 1 and remained the ACHA’s top-ranked team for 13 straight weeks after starting last season 18-0.

“It shows a lot about how strong our program is and how it’s come along,” junior forward Alex Park said.

“Being ranked No. 1 right now is cool and everything but we want to be ranked No. 1 at the end of the year for it to mean a lot. Hopefully we keep this ranking up until the end of the year,” he added.

After defeating Central States Collegiate Hockey League (CSCHL) conference opponent Eastern Michigan last weekend the Illini also took over the top spot in the CSCHL standings.

Illinois is tied with Robert Morris College for first place in the conference with 24 points.

Illinois will take a break this weekend from conference play to welcome ACHA Division-I Independent North Dakota State to town for a pair of games at the University of Illinois Ice Arena on Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m.

The Bison come into the weekend without having won a game this season at 0-4-1, and haven’t played a game since Oct. 22. The Bison are led by senior forward Nick Kebsbach, who leads North Dakota State in scoring this season with 7 points.

So far this season North Dakota State has been scoring just over four goals per game, however on the other end of the rink the Bison are allowing opponents to score nearly nine goals per game.

“They have a couple of good players and one who used to play NCAA Division-I hockey, so we can’t look past them,” Heredia said.

“We need to come out and get off to a good start like we did last weekend. We can’t let them hang around,” he added.

Last season North Dakota State shocked then No. 4-ranked Illinois, upsetting the Illini at home with a 4-3 overtime victory on Jan. 20, 2006. It was Illinois’ only home loss last season and its first home loss since Feb. 11, 2005.

The Illini came back the next night and beat North Dakota State 5-2 to reestablish itself as the better team, but knows this year they cannot take the Bison lightly.

“We definitely will reiterate the fact that they were the one team to beat us at home last year,” Park said. “They definitely have a strong team this year and had a strong team last year as well. We’re looking not to take them lightly at all.”