Hockey confronts uncertainty with crucial games on horizon



By Tony Donisch

With the end of the semester drawing near, the curtain is closing on the fall sports season. Meanwhile, the Illinois hockey team is just finishing its opening act.

Heading into the first weekend off in their 32-game regular season, the Illini (11-1, 4-0) have great uncertainty ahead of them. What is certain, however, is their 47-game winning streak is over, their attempt at a second straight undefeated season is shot and their No. 1 ranking is still intact – at least for now.

The seemingly unbeatable defending champs were defeated, and even more surprising, defeated by No. 13 Central Oklahoma, not future opponent No. 2 Lindenwood.

“Honestly, I didn’t think we would lose to Central Oklahoma,” junior forward JJ Heredia said. “I don’t think a lot of the guys did.”

The top seed in the ACHA rankings is more than just a way to gauge the team’s success relative to others; the poll determines the seed for the top 16 teams in the national championships, which start March 14 in Gates Mills, Ohio.

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In the second ACHA Division I poll of the season, released on Oct. 24, Illinois held on to the top spot with its then-spotless 8-0-0 record. But now, the Illini’s spot at the top of the totem pole might be in danger when the new rankings are released on Friday due to a number of one-loss teams hot on their heels. The only other first-place vote-getter was also upset on the same weekend, leaving uncertainty near the top of the polls.

“I think it will be interesting to see because the very same night that we lost, the No. 2 team, Lindenwood, who is the only other undefeated team, also lost to Iowa State, and their loss was at home,” captain Jordan Pringle said.

“I don’t know if we’ll fall one or two spots, but I expect we’ll stay where we’re at because of the Lindenwood loss.”

Lindenwood followed up their first loss two weeks ago with a shootout loss to No. 4 Liberty, possibly extinguishing their chance to overtake the Illini for the top spot. The off week enables the Illini to catch up on some much-needed rest leading up to a couple of key home games against league rival No. 12 Michigan-Dearborn. After that, they hit the road to play Lindenwood in a much-anticipated league series with the two teams jockeying for the top spot.

“It’s still pretty early in the season, and we have two big games against Lindenwood in a couple of weeks, so that will kind of settle that debate,” Pringle said.

Even if Illinois loses the top spot this Friday, the players have their eyes on the national championship and realize that it doesn’t matter if they aren’t on top after the opening act, as long as they’re the ones bowing when the show’s over.

“It’s not all about being the No. 1 team in October or November,” Pringle said. “You want to be the No. 1 team at the end of the year.”