Illini hockey’s title at stake in Ohio game



By Jason Grodsky

For the fifth consecutive season, the Central States Collegiate Hockey League regular season championship will be on the line when the Illinois men’s hockey club faces Ohio this weekend.

Coming off convincing 7-1 and 9-0 wins over DePaul last weekend, Illinois heads into this weekend’s games against Ohio on Friday and Saturday night in Athens, Ohio separated by just two points in the CSCHL standings. The Bobcats are in first-place with 50 points and a 16-4 conference record (24-6-1 overall), while the Illini have accumulated 48 points in conference play with a 12-2 league record (24-2-0 overall).

“It’s a huge weekend for us,” junior forward Alex Park said. “There is a little nervous feeling, but for a lot of us we take that nervous feeling as a good feeling because it means we are up and excited to play.”

The last four seasons the CSCHL regular season title has been won by either Illinois or Ohio. The Bobcats have won the title the last three seasons by an average of just five points in the standings.

Despite dropping the regular season title to the Bobcats last season, the Illini upset Ohio in the CSCHL Conference Tournament to take home the CSCHL Tournament championship. The last time Illinois brought the CSCHL regular season title home to Champaign was in 2002-2003, when the Illini finished with a club best 37-2 record and lost just one conference game the entire season.

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“It’s kind of been back and forth for our two teams and it’s definitely our biggest rivalry right now,” senior forward Marshall Chubirka said. “It’s fun playing against them because of the great atmosphere.”

Because Illinois has played two less conference games than the Bobcats, the Illini could still win the regular season title if it splits the weekend series with the Bobcats and then wins one of its final two conference games against Robert Morris the following weekend at home. But two losses to the Bobcats would eliminate any chances of an Illinois crown.

“All you can ask for is to be able to control your own fate and at this point we do,” head coach Chad Cassel said. “It’s up to us what we do. If we play well I like our chances.”

Illinois will have to go into Athens without arguably its best player, junior forward and team captain Drew Heredia. Heredia’s season ended last week when he broke his left ankle in Torino, Italy playing for the U.S. University Select Team in the Winter World University Games.

Luckily for the Illini, they will get back Chubirka, junior forward Johnny Liang and junior defenseman Dave Schmitt, all of whom have missed the last six games for the Illini while playing overseas for Team USA.

“Getting everyone back will be huge,” Park said. “We already have a lot of depth in our lineup but adding them will just add some top players and make us even deeper. Because of that we should be coming out even harder than in the past few weeks.”

Both Illinois and Ohio are ranked in the top three in the American Collegiate Hockey Association. The Illini have been ranked No. 1 in the ACHA since Nov. 3, 2006, while the Bobcats are ranked No. 3 and have not been ranked outside the top five all season.

“Ohio is a good team and we have to get focused,” Liang said. “It’ll be another good test for our team because the games will be high intensity and more physical because of their smaller rink.”