Goaltender stabilizes inconsistent first half

Illini goaltender Mike Burda prepares for a puck to come his way during a game against Robert Morris College on Oct. 31. The Illini won 7-1. Erica Magda

Illini goaltender Mike Burda prepares for a puck to come his way during a game against Robert Morris College on Oct. 31. The Illini won 7-1. Erica Magda

By Alex Paull

Mike Burda might be the only one on the Illini hockey team happy with the team’s performance thus far. As a self-described “calmer,” that optimism might be expected from someone who considers himself one of the leaders of the team.

“I’m a calmer goaltender, I like to chill,” the junior goaltender said. “I like to listen to music while I stretch by myself and try to stay away from all the joking around and stuff.

“I feel like it’s our job – me, (Jordan) Pringle, (Matt) Jennings, (Brad) Hoelzer, guys like that – to really step up and lead this team to hopefully another Championship,” Burda added.

Don’t be fooled by his Joe Cool manner though. As pleased as Burda has been with his play, and more importantly the team’s success, he realizes that with a younger roster and inconsistent play from the defense, the pressure has intensified, especially on his end.

“Last year we had so many great senior defensemen,” Burda said. “Now, there are a lot of younger defensemen that just haven’t had the experience. Definitely, I feel a little more pressure on my part, but the defensemen are coming around. I feel good about it; I feel good about the team.”

A 16-2-0 record and a No. 1-ranking at the halfway point of the 2008-09 campaign isn’t anything to panic over. But in the eyes of head coach Chad Cassel, the team hasn’t been anywhere near the level it was during last year’s magical undefeated season that culminated with a National Championship – the one exception being the play of Burda.

“Record wise, obviously, we’ve done well,” Cassel said. “The one thing is that I’ve been a little disappointed with inconsistency. When we play well it’s fun to watch, and we can beat anybody, but we’ve also proven that with that inconsistency when we’re bad, we’re bad, and we can lose to anybody.”

The Illini ended up losing that second game against Lindenwood (5-0), their second loss of the season.

Despite the ugly score, Cassel had it right.

Burda helped make the game appear closer than it really was, stopping 35 of the 40 shots he faced that night.

Stellar performances like that have become routine for Burda this season.

After taking over the goaltending duties from All-American Mike DeGeorge last season, a growing familiarity with the team’s opponents and a leadership role have fueled his season thus far.

“Last year, I was a first-time starter, a newer guy,” Burda said. “I was a lot more nervous. I was playing new teams at new rinks, but now after being in the league, seen what every team has and all, I feel a lot more comfortable in every situation.”

The sense of comfort could pay dividends for him in the long run this season. With 11 starts so far, just shy of half of the total starts he made last season, Burda is well on his way to improving his numbers across the board.

He is on pace to give up fewer goals this season than he did last year, even though he will probably end up seeing more shots.

Consequently, his goals against average has decreased this season while his save percentage has improved to a gaudy 95 percent.

Burda has also recorded five shutouts so far – the latest one coming Friday against Eastern Michigan University.

The 23-save shutout set the tone for the weekend, as the Illini finished steamrolling over Eastern Michigan on Saturday with a 10-1 win to close out the first semester on a strong note.

In the meantime, even Burda realizes the team’s play will have to pick up after the break if the Illini hope to end on the same note they did last year.

“We have some guys coming in after the semester that will help us out as a team, some new players,” Burda said. “I think they should really shake up the lineup, and hopefully after this break, we are all going to come back and refocus. We got a lot of guys with that first semester under their belt – defensemen, younger forwards – who will be able to contribute more.”

Despite the need for improvements, inconsistent play isn’t enough to affect Burda’s seemingly perpetual high. Like a true cool cat, he’s ready for the second semester of games to start and a shot to repeat as champions.

“I’m very happy. I mean, obviously last year was a dream season,” Burda said. “But this year, going into Lindenwood and picking up that big win and ending the first semester 16-2, you got to be happy with how you are looking going into the second semester as far as being No. 1. No complaints so far.”

Tony Donisch contributed to this report

Editor’s Note: The Daily Illini sports desk sits down on Sunday nights to decide which Illinois athlete or coach is our Illini of the Week.

Student-athletes and coaches are evaluated by individual performance, contribution to team success and personal achievement.