Penn State ices Illini hockey in weekend sweep

By Alex Paull

Just when the Illinois hockey team appeared to have its problems of inconsistency and effort solved, the ship appears to have sailed off course again. Despite being concerned about their play much of the season, the Illini had managed to avoid being swept in a series until this past weekend.

For the first time in over two seasons, Illinois (18-4, 11-1 CSCHL) lost both games of a weekend series, this time on the road against the Penn State Icers, 5-1 on Friday and 5-4 on Saturday. Though a road loss to the No. 3-ranked team shouldn’t be very surprising, coming back with two losses is.

“The losses were very disappointing,” head coach Chad Cassel said. “When we play how we are capable of playing I think the results are different. We had a good week of practice and spent a lot of time talking about the things we need to do to give ourselves a chance to win and we didn’t. So from this standpoint it’s disappointing. We just got to move on. We’ve played two really good teams on the road at Lindenwood and Penn State and right now we’re 1-3 in those games, so we need to improve.”

The team started the second semester off on a good note with a sweep at Western Michigan University last weekend, converting on power plays and stopping virtually everything shot at them. Primed to put together a nice winning streak, Illinois couldn’t match last weekend’s success.

While the Illini’s penalty kill was successful, their power play struggled. They converted just three of their 14 power play chances, while giving up early goals in both games. The Illini surrendered five first-period goals between the two games and were forced to play catch-up against the Icers – a position in which they are not accustomed to being.

“We basically handed them goals at the beginning of the game, really bad turnovers on defense,” Cassel said. “It got better as the game went on, but it was tough to come back. We were down, even though we were controlling the game. I thought we were the better team on Saturday.”

Captain Jordan Pringle had similar thoughts on the lackluster weekend performance.

“It wasn’t a good effort and was definitely disappointing,” Pringle said. “You don’t get too many opportunities to play teams like that, so it was definitely disappointing.

“When you are traveling so far, it’s never a good feeling to lose both games.”

Illini goaltending, usually a model of consistency, did not have its best stuff in the series. Goalie Mike Burda allowed seven goals in the series, including two in Saturday’s game after relieving goalie DJ Kohler, who allowed three goals in the first period.

“Our goaltenders were very average over the weekend, and when you are playing a good team on the road you have to have good goaltending,” Cassel said. “We have good goaltenders, but they just didn’t play well enough this weekend. Against a really good team like Penn State, you have to do all the little things, and we didn’t.”

Illinois was voted the No. 1-ranked team for the 17th consecutive week on Jan. 16, but with these two losses, there is a good chance the Illini will not be defending the ranking for an 18th consecutive week. Lindenwood University closed the gap to within 12 votes in the last poll and shut out Robert Morris in both of its games this past weekend.

“It’s nice to have the No. 1-ranking throughout the whole year, but I think it will be good for us to lose it,” Pringle said. “I think we have been taking it for granted and it will be good way for guys to get motivated again.”

Illinois plays its next four games at home, starting with a pair of games against Indiana University on Jan. 23.

For players and coaches alike, it will be a good opportunity to recover from their stumble and get back into championship form.

“We are going to have to play well,” Cassel said. “Last year it was a difficult series at Indiana. We are at home now, so that should give us a slight advantage. But it’s not going to be an easy series, and hopefully our guys respond well to a week of practice and come out ready to play on Friday because the season is not going to get any easier.”