Illini face Ohio State after reminiscent start

Goalie Mike Burda watches for the puck in a match against Oakland University at the Ice Arena on Oct. 3. The Illini hope to combine goaltending and offensive skills to defeat Ohio State on Friday and Saturday. Erica Magda

By Tony Donisch

The Illini return home to the “Big Pond” on Friday with a strikingly similar characteristic to last year’s National Championship team at this time – perfection.

For the fourth straight year, the Illini have jump-started the season with six straight wins.

So far, the team has garnered approval from head coach Chad Cassel with a display of unbridled offensive prowess on the ice against its first three opponents, including two in the top 15, averaging more than seven goals and 49 shots per game.

“I’m very happy with where the team’s at,” Cassel said.

In the two games decided by two goals or less, the goaltending and defensive zone coverage has taken center stage. The one-two punch of juniors Mike Burda and D.J. Kohler have bested their 11 goals allowed from last year to a miniscule five.

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But they haven’t been of much need this season, because Illinois has never trailed and has more than doubled its opponents’ shot count every game but one.

“It’s great. I can focus on making the saves I need. We’re a big power offense,” Burda said on the high goal scoring thus far.

Fourteen different players have notched goals, including four newcomers, allaying the fear of inexperience expressed by Cassel before the start of the season. As evidenced by the early results, the players have seemed to form a cohesive unit rather quickly.

“We have so many new players this year,” Cassel said. “Everyone’s still getting used to each other. Last year we were a much more veteran team. Everyone was on the same page from the get-go.”

Last year at this time, the Illini were riding high off a sweep against No. 1 Penn State and about to play a familiar foe in No. 4 Lindenwood. This season, after a sweep on No. 10 Kent State’s home ice for the first league and road wins, they play host to a less-talented and unrecognizable opponent, the ACHA Division II Ohio State Buckeyes.

In football, the matchup between Illinois and Ohio State has taken on an almost rivalry-like status, but in the world of club hockey, the two teams are merely acquaintances. The last game between the two dates all the way back to 2003. In addition to being in separate conferences, they’re not even in the same division. But with a 44-game winning streak dating back to last year, the players won’t have much trouble finding meaning against any opponent.

“No matter who it is we’ll look to bring it,” Burda said.

Following an 18-10-2 season, Ohio State started off the year on the wrong foot with a pair of lopsided 9-1 losses against in-state rival Miami (Ohio). Buckeye goaltenders Kelle McCall and Dru Delaforet each allowed nine goals, and with the Illini’s offensive attack, they have their work cut out for them.

The Illini take the ice against the Buckeyes on Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with their start bringing expectations of a finish much like last year’s National Champion team.

“I’m seeing a lot of the same things happening,” said junior Tom Connell.