Illini weather Cyclones, complete sweep before CSCHL tourney

Johnny Chiang

Johnny Chiang

By Alex Paull

After the Lindenwood series last weekend, seeing the Illinois hockey team play well again appeared unlikely.

However, the Illini (24-8-1) finally demonstrated that they could win without five of their key contributors, stepping up to the challenge with a sweep of the Iowa State Cyclones (31-9-2) by scores of 2-1 and 4-1 on Friday and Saturday, respectively.

Goals were hard to come by for most of the series, as the power-play unit was only able to convert 3 of its 12 chances. However, the Illini shot like there was no tomorrow, outshooting Iowa State 81 to 47 and playing consistently throughout both games, something that hasn’t been seen in quite some time.

“We were spectacular,” interim captain Jason Nemeth said. “We played very well this weekend. This was huge confidence booster going into the tournament.”

While the Illini offense put the pressure on the Cyclones all weekend, no one played a bigger part in the huge sweep than goaltender DJ Kohler.

Taking over the reigns for shelved starter Mike Burda, who is dealing with a separated shoulder injury, Kohler answered the bell for the Illini, making one outstanding save after another.

“He played great for us,” head coach Chad Cassel said. “He is a great goalie, and especially tonight, he made some big saves. The penalty shot save was unbelievable. The shooter made a great move, and Kohler was able to stick his pad out and make a tremendous save. He’s playing great, and we’ll ride the hot goalie.”

The penalty shot Cassel referred to took place with 11 minutes left in a first period in Saturday’s contest.

Making the acrobatic save so early in a scoreless game was the perfect catalyst for the team to rally around the rest of the game.

Only an appetizer, Kohler stopped fast break after fast break, even as the puck dashed back and forth across the crease. As the Illini continued to feed off the saves, the puck seemed to be taunting the Cyclones, refusing to cross the line for an Iowa State goal.

“I thought I played well,” Kohler said. “I’m just trying to give the team the best chance to win, not giving up soft goals. My teammates kept a lot of their (Iowa State’s) shots to the outside and helped out in front, so I give them a lot of credit.”

Certainly there was enough credit to go around. While Kohler was busy keeping the Iowa State scoring attack at bay, others were creating shots for the playmakers and getting the scoring attack going.

Nemeth lit the fuse for the attack, assisting on two goals in each game, while junior forward Tom Connell exploded for a goal and four assists during the series, including a hand in each goal on Saturday.

“Our objective was to get shots on goal,” Nemeth said. “If we saw an open pass to make, we make it and hopefully something would fall from it and they did. Offensively and defensively, the guys filled the roles they were expected to do. It was awesome.”

While it was important to get some of the scorers going, it was the scrappy play and effort that really made the difference. The rest of the team was doing the dirty work that usually is a recipe for plenty of wins.

“We played hard all weekend,” Cassel said. “The guys have bought in to the importance of blocking shots and doing the little things, so I think we could win nationals the same way we won this weekend.”

Replacing its four-game skid with a two-game winning streak is the perfect note for the team to head into the CSCHL Tournament, particularly with Robert Morris up first next weekend, a team the Illini whipped 7-1 in October.

As happy of ending as the regular season had, naturally the scoring will have to speed up the Illini’s resurgence as the competition continues to stiffen. That resurgence runs through the power play first and foremost.

“The reality is we expect more out of the special teams,” Cassel said. “We are getting good looks and playing well defensively, and doing a lot of the little things. It was a hundred times better this weekend than last weekend, and hopefully it will continue to improve for next weekend.”