Illini hockey opens up season with national title on agenda

By Wes Anderson

The Illinois hockey team will begin a two-game series against Michigan State on Friday night to kick off a new season. After coming up one goal short in last season’s national semifinals, the team is looking to redeem itself.

The Illini enter the year ranked No. 2 in the American Collegiate Hockey Association preseason poll, and expectations are higher than ever.

“Our number one goal is to win a national championship,” said Drew Heredia, senior forward and second-year team captain.

Such lofty aspirations are nothing new for head coach Chad Cassel, who has cemented Illinois club hockey as a national powerhouse since becoming head coach in 1997. For him, the goal of a Central States Collegiate Hockey League conference title and a national title is the status quo.

The Illini remain near the top of the club hockey world despite some tough losses over the last few years. After winning the national championship in 2005, Illinois was turned away in two consecutive tournament semifinals, most recently at the hands of eventual national champion Oakland. The Illini tied the game late at 2-2, only to have Oakland score the decisive goal with 59 seconds remaining.

“That was definitely a tough way to end the season, with the way we battled,” Heredia said. “It was a heartbreaker, especially for all the seniors we had.”

Graduation took a heavy toll on the Illinois defense, most notably with veteran goaltender Mike DeGeorge’s departure. This year’s defensive starters are much younger and lacking in experience, and the competition to replace DeGeorge at goaltender is “wide open” according to Cassel. Despite this, remaining Illini leaders aren’t panicking.

“Defense is not just on the defense men,” Heredia said. He added that a team effort, especially with the depth at forward, would shore up the defense.

The best defense for this season may just be the Illini attack.

“We’re going to score a lot of goals,” Heredia said.

This year’s squad won’t have to wait long for a chance to solidify their status as a national contender. Following series against the Spartans and Central Oklahoma, Illinois takes on No. 1 ranked Penn State at the University of Illinois Ice Arena before entering conference play.

“We’ve got a number of big tests early,” Cassel said. “I think it’s great.”

The Illini will begin play at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday at the Ice Arena.