UI hockey savors title, starts over

Erica Magda

Erica Magda

By Tony Donisch

“What we did last year means nothing at this point.”

Illinois hockey head coach Chad Cassel’s words ring true as the Division I American College Hockey Association National Champions begin with a clean slate on Friday with a two-game series against Michigan State at home.

Last year, the two club teams faced off in the opener with Illinois taking the first game 5-2, and squeaking by in the second with a goal with 24 seconds left in overtime.

The Illini hope to make it less of a nail biter this time around.

“They surprised us by taking it into overtime,” junior defenseman Brad Hoelzer said of last season’s opener. “We’re definitely not going to take them lightly.”

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After the close call against the Spartans, the team cruised to a 38-0-0 season with conference and national titles, which vaulted them to the No. 1 ranking in the ACHA preseason poll.

Michigan State finished with a winning record of 16-15-1 in Division II of the ACHA, after its national championship the previous season.

“For the last five or six years, they’ve built up a perennial powerhouse, and there’s not much of a difference in Division I and Division II,” Cassel said.

“We were fortunate last year to beat them 5-2 and then in overtime. They return a good core and it’s going to be a difficult week.”

While Michigan State returns with two of its leading players, senior Scott Anderson and junior Ryan Hernandez. Illinois lost three of its top five goal scorers, and eight seniors total.

“We have 10 new players, and I’m not sure what to expect,” Cassel said.

After weeks of preparation, the players are eager for the season to begin.

“We had just a month straight of practices,” Hoelzer said. “It’s starting to get old just playing the same people.”

Senior captain Jordan Pringle feels the same.

“It’s always such a long month,” Pringle said. “It’s exciting to play in a game.”

But it’s important that the eagerness is held in check this weekend.

“For us, the key is to stay disciplined and out of the penalty box,” Cassel said. “We need to work hard and take advantage of power play opportunities.”

The journey toward a repeat starts with two straight series and 12 out of 18 games on the home ice.

“We have the best fans and the ‘Big Pond’ as our home,” Pringle said. “Our home field advantage is just amazing.”