Men’s hockey brings hope to nationals

By Jason Grodsky

The Illinois men’s hockey team finished the regular season with a 29-6 record and a No. 3 ranking in the American Collegiate Hockey Association, but none of that matters now.

The Illini head into the 2007 ACHA National Tournament in Youngstown, Ohio, with its slate wiped clean. Win, and the Illini move closer to capturing their second ACHA National Championship in the club’s 50-year history. Lose, and the Illini head back to Champaign early.

“We feel like we have a good chance if we play well,” head coach Chad Cassel said. “It’s a similar situation as our league tournament, where it’s do or die. So we should be prepared since we’re coming off the league tournament a few weeks ago.”

Illinois will open this season’s national tournament at 4 p.m. on Wednesday as the third seed and face off against the 14th-seeded Presidents of Washington and Jefferson College.

The last time the Illini and the Presidents met was two years ago in the 2005 ACHA National Tournament. The Illini, who came into the 2005 tournament as the fourth seed, beat the Presidents 6-1 in the opening round of the tournament and eventually went on to claim their first ACHA National Championship.

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With 14 players from the 2005 National Championship team on the roster for this year’s squad, the Illini will have plenty of experience going into the tournament. And the six Illini seniors on the team are hoping to end their careers with another title.

“Winning a national championship is what we work for all year,” Cassel said. “Ultimately it’s four games in four days, but if we play well, we have as good a chance as anybody.”

Illinois has advanced to two straight final four appearances in the ACHA National Tournament and five in the last six seasons. Last season the Illini finished third after losing 1-0 in the semifinal round against Penn State.

But for Illinois to even have a shot at making this year’s final four and winning another championship, it has to first get past Washington and Jefferson.

The Presidents enter this week’s tournament with an overall record of 28-9 and claimed the regular season College Hockey Mid-America Conference title. The Presidents have won 12 out of their last 13 games, with the only loss coming in the CHMA Conference Tournament Championship game against Duquesne University.

Washington and Jefferson has the fire power to keep up with the Illini’s high-octane offense. The Presidents averaged just over 5.5 goals per game this season and are led by senior Bob Rose and freshman Ryne Savisky. Rose leads the Presidents in total points this season with 59 (19 goals, 40 assists) while Savisky’s 31 goals leads the team and is tied for fifth best in the ACHA.

“They have a good team and we are going to have to play well,” Cassel said. “We get to play on the Olympic size rink, which is bigger like ours, so we should feel comfortable.”

If the Illini beat the Presidents, they will take on the winner of the sixth-seeded Iowa State and 11th-seeded West Chester game on Thursday for the chance to advance to semifinals on Saturday.