No. 2 Illini hockey face off against No. 1 Penn State at home in ‘most demanding test’

By Wes Anderson

Two years ago a victory against Penn State gave Illinois a national title. This season, the Nittany Lion Icers are all that stand between the Illini and a No. 1 ranking.

After opening with four straight wins, the No. 2-ranked Illinois hockey club faces its most demanding test of a young season this weekend as Penn State comes to Champaign for a two-game series. The Icers hold the top spot in the latest American Collegiate Hockey Association Division I rankings, garnering 40 of 42 first-place votes. The matchup of two club hockey powerhouses will bring a tournament atmosphere to the University Ice Arena.

“The most important thing is to win your last game of the year, but it doesn’t happen very often that you face the No. 1-ranked team in the nation at home,” head coach Chad Cassel said.

Illinois hopes that the Icers won’t be bringing history with them. Despite Illinois’ overall success with Cassel at the helm, the Illini have struggled against Penn State. Since 2000, the Orange and Blue are 3-9-1 against the Icers. The two teams last met in the 2006 season when Penn State swept a series at University Park before knocking Illinois out of the ACHA tournament semifinals two months later.

Despite a losing record, though, each game has been hard fought. In the last seven meetings between the two teams, only one has been decided by more than one goal. Playing at the oversized Ice Arena rink in front of an orange-clad crowd may prove pivotal.

“It’s important we’re at home,” Cassel said. “It should be an advantage for us.”

This season the undefeated Illini appear prepared for the challenge. In victories against ACHA Division II national champion Michigan State and No. 19 Central Oklahoma, the Illini are averaging 5.25 goals per game and have not allowed a goal over their last 130 minutes of play.

“We’ve been able to take care of business up until a point, so we’ve put ourselves in a good position,” Cassel said.

A talented Penn State club will be facing its first real test of the season in Champaign. The Icers scored 28 times in four games against the University of Scranton and Drexel University, and goaltender Nick Signet has allowed only two goals in his four starts.

Illinois will rely on its young netminders to counter the aggressive Icer offense. Mike Burda is expected to start Friday, although Cassel said no final decision has been made. The sophomore has compiled a 1.00 goals against average and a 94.74 save percentage in his two starts. If the Illini’s current rotation holds, DJ Kohler would be in the crease for Saturday’s series finale.

Early into the week, Cassel commented that the practices were “going well so far” and that, on the heels of two consecutive shutouts, the coaching staff would continue to stress defensive zone improvement. Going into Friday’s 7 p.m. face-off, it shouldn’t be difficult to find motivation for a hard effort.

“Our guys are getting pretty excited,” Cassel said. “They’ve been looking forward to this weekend all year.”