Hockey rides CSCHL carousel in preparation for nationals

Brennan Caughron The Daily Illini Illinois Jason Nemeth (16) talks with a referee at the Ice Arena on Friday Feb. 13, 2009.

Brennan Caughron The Daily Illini Illinois’ Jason Nemeth (16) talks with a referee at the Ice Arena on Friday Feb. 13, 2009.

By Alex Paull

On a weekend that seemed to resemble a carousel ride, the Central States Collegiate Hockey League (CSCHL) tournament had its fair share of twists and turns while the Illinois hockey team played conductor.

Although finishing fourth in the conference tournament doesn’t have any bearing on their seeding at nationals, it was the Illini’s play en route to finishing in the middle of the pack that drew the most concern.

Though each team only played three games, Illinois’ performance over that short span succeeded in covering the entire hockey spectrum, good and bad, with a game of goalie roulette thrown in too.

With their dominating 6-3 win against Robert Morris in Friday’s tournament opener, the Illini momentarily validated the notion that they were still one of the nation’s elite teams.

Four different Illini players, including a pair of goals each by forwards Daniel Cohen and Sam Fatigato, shouldered the scoring load. Both underclassmen have been thrust into larger roles on the team to fill the voids left by the contributors who participated in the World University Games.

“The momentum really helped against Robert Morris,” interim captain Jason Nemeth said. “The power play played well, a lot of different players scored for us, so it was a good team effort.”

It was in Saturday’s game against Iowa State University that the Illini seemed to regress. After sweeping the Cyclones last weekend, the Illini fell to the eventual tournament runner-up, 6-3.

Right off the bat things started to head south for the Illini. Down 3-1 after the first period, Illinois faced the daunting task of playing catch-up in a single-elimination tournament.

Goaltender DJ Kohler, who was the catalyst in the sweep against the Cyclones on Feb. 20-21, gave up four goals through the first 20 minutes and 22 seconds of the game, doubling the number of goals he had given up in the entire series that weekend.

“I should have played better,” Kohler said. “I let the team down in the first period. It was just one of those games where we played hard, but just couldn’t catch up.”

After Kohler gave up the fourth goal, the roulette ball was put into motion. Out came Kohler and in came previous starting goalie Mike Burda in his first action since suffering a separated shoulder injury in a Valentine’s Day weekend series against Lindenwood University.

Though Burda only gave up two goals the remainder of the game, the fresh face couldn’t breathe life into a comeback. Burda’s reward for the effort would be a seat on the bench for the rest of the tournament.

“I’m not really sure about that, it’s coach’s decision,” Kohler said. “We have good goaltenders, but I don’t know why the rotation was like that.”

While Illinois still managed to outshoot Iowa State, pucks stopped finding the back of the net.

The power-play unit dipped a bit, going just 2-for-7. On Sunday the Illini car seemed to completely derail. In the consolation game against top-seeded Lindenwood, the Illini were outplayed, losing 5-2.

The game of goalie roulette finished with Peter Filip. In just his second start of the season, the freshman stopped 39 of 44 shots.

The nosedive was completed in the third period when the Illini were outshot 20-5. Before the scoring attack flat-lined, the only sign of life came 16 seconds into the period via the stick of Daniel Cohen.

“There wasn’t really much inspired play by either team,” head coach Chad Cassel said. “No one is really excited to play for third and fourth place.”

Though the finish line is in sight with the national tournament approaching in two weeks, the Illini now are dealing with the same inconsistency they faced throughout the season.

The return of five key contributors that left for the World University Games in China will be welcomed, but Cassel and his players now must decide how exactly the puzzle will be pieced together.

And will the real starting goaltender please stand up?

“Our goalies didn’t have a particularly good weekend, but at the same time our scorers are going to have to do a better job,” Cassel said. “With the great players coming back, if we can get a hot goaltender next weekend, hopefully we can ride him through nationals.”

The team will be the first to remind you that fourth place isn’t the end of the world. With key players returning and two weeks, including a game against Illinois State this Friday, to gel, the Illini should fare much better in nationals.

“We played outstanding without them, but we’re always excited to get five of our best players back,” Nemeth said. “We are very optimistic about the way our team will look in the nationals.”