Hockey club retains winning streak



By Wes Anderson

Ten minutes into the second half of its season, the Illinois hockey club’s previously unshakeable winning form was noticeably absent from the Dearborn Ice Arena. In keeping with the mantra of the first half of the season, however, the Fighting Illini found a way to win.

On Jan. 4 – the team’s first game following a four-week layoff – club hockey’s top-ranked team found itself trailing early by two goals against the Michigan-Dearborn Wolves, who had won only three of their first 21 games.

“We got off the bus, we were a little bit tired, and we came out a little flat,” center Drew Heredia said. “There were a couple of mistakes, and they capitalized on their shots.”

The Illini rebounded, though, and scored six second-period goals to ultimately emerge with an 11-6 road victory on Jan. 4.

“We just needed to get back into a little flow and get used to playing with each other again,” Heredia said.

With the rust from a long break cast aside, the No. 1-ranked Illini dominated their four-game roadtrip to begin 2008, winning two games against the Wolves – the second 8-0- before sweeping Indiana 2-0 Friday and 5-3 Saturday in Bloomington, Ind.

For the roadtrip, center Tom Connell led the way in scoring, finding the net five times in four games and recording a hat trick against the Wolves on Jan. 5. Sophomore goaltender Mike Burda made three consecutive starts on the trip and recorded two shutouts, including a gritty 23-save performance against Indiana.

“It was a rough weekend,” Heredia said of the series with the Hoosiers. “Those were probably two of the most physical games we’ve played this year, on a very small rink.”

Illinois maintained its perfect record in what is already an unprecedented season. The Illini’s 21 straight victories is the best start to a season and the longest win streak in the club’s history, surpassing the previous mark of 18 wins in the 2006 season.

“That was my sophomore year, after we won nationals,” Heredia said. “We went undefeated for a semester, but when we came back we lost our first five games. So, after we got that 19th win, that put us over the top, and now we’re on a nice little roll.”

Illinois’ winningest season came in 2003, when the Illini went 37-2-0. While chasing that record, this season’s team will look to accomplish what the 2003 Illini did not – winning a national title.

The season has also become especially memorable for head coach Chad Cassel. During the break, Cassel was among a group that included Chicago Blackhawks legend Stan Mikita that were inducted into the Illinois Hockey Hall of Fame on Dec. 30.

In a press release, the IHHF stated that the inductees “have contributed in an extraordinary way to enhance the sport and image of hockey in Illinois.”

The Illini return to the Big Pond this weekend, as the Kent State Golden Flashes come to Champaign for a two-game series.

“It’ll be nice to get the fans engaged again, and let them know that we want to make it a perfect season,” Heredia said.