Illini upset in national semifinals

By Jason Grodsky

The 2007 American Collegiate Hockey Association National Tournament was filled with upsets, and the Illinois men’s hockey team was one of the victims.

For the second year in a row, the Illini fell one goal short of advancing to the National Championship game, this time losing 3-2 in the semifinals to 10th-seeded Oakland University in Youngstown, Ohio, on Saturday.

The Illini entered the final four match-up as one of just two of the nation’s top teams to survive the first two days of the tournament without being upset.

The third-seeded Illini were unable to escape the semifinal round, though, and lost to one of the tournament’s Cinderella teams on a goal in the final minute of the game.

“There were a lot of upsets in the tournament and we knew we would have to play well to advance,” head coach Chad Cassel said. “We knew we had our work cut out for us and we didn’t play well in the first period. We got stronger as the game went on but Oakland’s goalie was just outstanding and that’s a big reason why they won.”

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The Illini came into Saturday’s semifinal full of momentum after dominating their opening round and quarterfinal round games, beating 14th-seed Washington and Jefferson 5-0 and then downing 11th-seeded West Chester 8-3.

While the Illini entered the semifinal game with a head of steam, the Golden Grizzles of Oakland came into the game playing their best hockey of the year.

Oakland defeated seventh-seeded Lindenwood 5-4 in the tournament’s opening round and then took down 15th-seeded Michigan-Dearborn 5-1 to advance on to play the Illini.

Oakland came out strong in the semifinal, scoring midway through the second period and then again with five minutes left in the period.

The Illini finally got on the board with just under two minutes left in the second period with a goal by freshman forward Matt Jennings, assisted by senior Marshall Chubirka and junior Johnny Liang.

Still trailing 2-1 with under two minutes left in the game, the Illini pulled senior goaltender Mike DeGeorge and after a scrum in front of the Grizzles’ bench, freshman J.J. Heredia tied the game up on his second goal of the tournament, causing the Illini bench to erupt.

But the celebration was short-lived. Just 20 seconds later, Grizzles’ senior forward Will McMahon netted the game-winning goal with 59 seconds remaining.

“That was one of the biggest emotional roller coasters we’ve ever been on,” Cassel said. “We had all the momentum and at that point I was fairly confident we had a great shot to end up winning the game. But to their credit they bounced right back and got a break and took advantage of it.”

Oakland’s dream run continued in the ACHA National Championship game, as the Grizzles defeated No. 1-ranked Penn State 5-1 to capture its first ACHA Division I National Title.

The title made it the second consecutive year the Grizzles won the ACHA National Championship.

Last season, Oakland won the ACHA Division II National Final, allowing them to move up to the ACHA Division I level.

Illinois’ third-place finish is the second straight year the Illini have finished third. It’s also the sixth time in the last seven years the Illini have made an appearance in the ACHA’s final four.

Illini sophomore Jordan Pringle and junior Alex Park led the Orange and Blue with four points in the tournament.

Pringle finished with three goals and one assist, while Park finished with a pair of goals and a pair of assists.

“We had an outstanding chance to win a national championship this year but just weren’t good enough,” Cassel said. “We’ll have a good core of experienced players returning so things can only get better for us.”