Hockey starts league play with toughest test yet

Junior defender Brad Hoelzer races to the puck in a match against Oakland University at the Ice Arena on Friday, October 3, 2008. Erica Magda

Junior defender Brad Hoelzer races to the puck in a match against Oakland University at the Ice Arena on Friday, October 3, 2008. Erica Magda

By Tony Donisch

The Illinois hockey club will migrate from the “Big Pond” for the first time this weekend to face a Central States Collegiate Hockey League (CSCHL) foe, No. 12-ranked Kent State.

Following a close season-opening 2-1 victory against Michigan State, the Illini (4-0-0) went on to win three more as they crushed the Spartans and No. 11 Oakland by a combined goal differential of 26-3, including two shutouts from Mike Burda.

A dominant start to the young season may be challenged this weekend by the Golden Flashes (2-0-0).

“I’m fairly confident they will be much stronger,” head coach Chad Cassel said.

Last year Illinois swept the three-game series by scores of 6-1, 5-2 and 4-1 in the semifinals of the CSCHL playoffs. The Golden Flashes ended the year with a 22-17-0 record and an exit in the first round of the ACHA National Tournament.

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However, Coach Cassel found it hard to find a correlation with last year’s results because of the strength of this year’s Kent State squad. Kent State returns this year with goaltender Ryan Gregory, who stopped 146 Illini shots in the three games and ended the season with 3.59 goals allowed per game.

“They have a really good goalie.” Cassel said. “(Forward) Jason O’Bannon is back after he was out for all of last year. They’re going to be much stronger this year.”

Two seasons ago O’Bannon racked up 84 points and was a finalist for the ACHA Division I Player of the Year award. Already he is making an impact with three goals and one assist for the Golden Flashes.

However, the Illini will have more to adjust to than O’Bannon’s return. After playing on the unusually extra-wide ice rink of the Ice Arena for the first two series of the season, Illinois will have to adjust to a regular-sized playing surface.

“It definitely affects us,” defenseman Brad Hoelzer said.

“It shrinks the game down a little bit, and we can’t use our speed much. It always seems that it takes us a period to get adjusted to the smaller ice, but after that we’re fine.”

After adjusting the power play offense for last week and experiencing good results, the team is focused more on the other side.

“We’re continuing to work on our penalty kill,” Hoelzer said.

“We haven’t been scored on our penalty kill yet, but it’s been kind of weak. So that’s been the focal point of our practice.”

After finishing with a perfect 18-0-0 league record last year, the first time a team had done so since Iowa State in the 1989-90 season, and winning the league tournament, the Illini now have a target on their backs.

“It’s more rivals,” senior Jason Nemeth said.

“We all know each other and don’t like each other. It matters more. It means a lot to go into the (CSCHL) tournament with the top seed,” he added.