Hockey starts season’s second half on right note

Brennan Caughron

Brennan Caughron

By Alex Paull

As Illinois hockey headed into an almost month-long break in December, concerns about consistency and effort lingered around the team’s performance, regardless of what its record may have indicated. The Illini (18-2) have maintained their No. 1 ranking throughout the season but have lost surprising games along the way.

An early season loss in October to underdog Central Oklahoma snapped a winning streak that spanned two seasons. More recently, the Illini met rival No. 2-ranked Lindenwood and split the series, losing the second game of the road-set and returning to Champaign with some worries.

The team got a well-deserved break during the holidays and returned to practice on Jan. 4. If the early practices are any indication, the players seem refocused on squashing any doubts concerning their effort and consistency.

“We did a lot of conditioning in practice,” head coach Chad Cassel said. “But that is to be expected after three weeks off. It wasn’t a big deal. It was a good week of practice to get ready for the Western Michigan series.”

The Illini picked up where they left off with a sweep of Western Michigan at home on Jan. 9 and 10.

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Goalie Mike Burda notched his sixth shutout of the season in the first game, while senior Jason Nemeth had a stellar series, racking up eight points while continuing to climb the list of Illinois’ all-time point leaders. He is now in third place with 201 points in his career.

“It is always tough to win on the road both nights,” Cassel said. “With play like Nemeth’s, we cruised through the first two periods of both games with five-goal leads. We need to improve on our penalty kills, so we have been working on that this week. It’s a good start though.”

With the season’s second half off on a good note, the Illini hope to carry the momentum into University Park to take on the No. 3-ranked Penn State Icers (18-5) on Jan. 16 and 17. The Icers are coming off a series sweep against the Ohio Bobcats and will look to take control of their big series with the Illini.

“It’s tough playing there, we know they are a team that is excited to play us,” Cassel said. “It’s a big opportunity for them to prove how good they are being ranked third in the country.”

One thing’s for certain, Cassel’s team won’t be overlooking its opponents, especially this weekend.

“There is nothing to look past,” Cassel added. “Penn State is a strong program, so there should be no reason to look forward.”