No. 11 Oakland evokes painful memories for Illini hockey

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Illini hockey player Tony Razik crosses over the puck as he makes his way down the ice. The Illini swept Michigan State last weekend 2-1 and 8-0. weekend 2-1 and 8-0. Erica Magda

By Tony Donisch

For some upperclassmen on the hockey team, their opponent this weekend brings back memories they’d like to forget.

No. 1 Illinois (2-0-0) plays its first ranked team when it faces off against Oakland University (0-2-0) at the “Big Pond” on Friday and Saturday.

Just 41 games ago, in 2007, the Illini found themselves a minute away from the national championship. Trailing by a goal with less than two minutes left, J.J. Heredia evened the score, and the bench went crazy. Twenty seconds later, the celebration turned into desolation when Oakland scored the game-winner and dashed the Illini’s title hopes.

“It was heartbreaking,” Heredia said. “We had just tied the game after pulling our goalie. Then, in the last seconds, they scored. A lot of the guys were upset in the locker room.”

Since the crushing defeat, the team hasn’t experienced that feeling again, racking up 40 straight wins, including 2-1 and 8-0 victories against Michigan State last weekend.

After a 23-12-0 record and a national tournament appearance last year, Oakland’s had an unexpectedly different start to the season than the Illini. The Grizzlies were swept last weekend at the hands of a team with a 5-26-1 record the previous season. They lost to Michigan-Dearborn, 8-5, and 6-5 in a shoot-out. But the Illini aren’t going to let Oakland’s rocky start fool them.

“They’re almost a top-10 team,” assistant coach Darin Trulock said. “Whenever you play a team like that it’s going to be hard. We’re not taking them lightly.”

The Grizzlies, from Rochester, Mich., come into town after having a difficult time stopping the puck from reaching the back of the net. All three goaltenders saw ice time for Oakland last weekend, allowing a total of 13 goals.

On the other hand, Illinois’ goaltending is a big asset, as junior Mike Burda notched a shutout and D.J. Kohler only allowed one goal Friday.

Even though Illinois won the first two games with a 10-1 goal differential, flaws still need to be addressed for this series.

“There were a lot of dumb penalties,” Trulock said. “Guys were excited, but maybe a little too excited.”

The players realize penalties are a problem as well.

“We took way too many penalties, and we need to do better on the power play,” Heredia said.

Trulock mentioned the team has focused on one aspect of its game in practice this week.

“We’ve been working a lot on power plays,” Heredia said. “We’re switching it up. I’m at a new position during power plays. (Head coach Chad Cassel) wants me to clean up the rebounds instead of waiting for a shot in back.”

Another part of the game that has been a focus in practices is winning the faceoff.

“We’ve been working a lot on faceoffs,” Heredia said. “We have some new centers, and I’ve been working with them a lot this week. It makes a big difference even though people don’t think so. Winning possession at the start is huge. The small things win games.”

The goal for this week is to transfer this approach to the game.

“We need to draw a lot of penalties and finish,” said forward Jordan Pringle.

The Illini will play without a key player once again, as All-American Jason Nemeth won’t suit up Friday. Last Friday, the team played without Burda, defenseman Brad Hoelzer and forwards Matt Jennings and Daniel Cohen.

Regardless, the Illini will go for 42 straight wins and avenge their last loss against Oakland on Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the University Ice Arena.

“We’re all psyched for the chance to play them again,” Pringle said.