Last hurrah at the Big Pond for hockey seniors

By Alex Paull

While the unique set of games this weekend for the Illinois hockey team has no meaning in the record department, there hasn’t been a weekend with more importance all season.

With an intrastate clash against Illinois State on Friday and a date with the CSCHL All-Stars on Saturday, fans and players alike will be treated to a weekend of exciting festivities. The fact that Friday is Senior Night for the hockey team is the just the cherry on top.

“It’s going to be weird being the last home games for us,” senior Jason Nemeth said. “But we’re going to enjoy every moment of it and take it all in. We really want to show our fans a good show.”

As fun as the weekend should be, the importance of playing well in the last games before nationals isn’t lost on the Illini.

“It’s obviously a big weekend for seniors, but since the team has been apart for three weeks, we don’t have a lot of time to pull it together for nationals,” head coach Chad Cassel said. “We are going to play our top line both games and hopefully it will be a tuneup for nationals.”

Right in time, the five key contributors who had been in China for the World University Games are back. Just having them return to the team would have been nice, but with international experience under their belts, there is hope their elevated play can be transferred to the rest of the squad.

“I think the level of play is something you will never experience again,” said captain Jordan Pringle, a senior who was one of the World University Games participants. “I feel like (the guys coming back) have a little more time, the game has slowed down. The game moved so fast and you didn’t have a lot of time to do something. Decision-making was quick, so we’ve tried sharing that experience with some of the younger guys here. We want to play fast and play harder all the time.”

Unfortunately for the Illini, this is the only weekend for the team to test out that transition. With juggled lines and the need to get all units clicking once again, neither game will be taken lightly.

Despite the exhibition-like nature of Saturday’s game, Cassel realizes even that game needs to approached like any other.

“It’s always a tough game to play, because of the all-star game mentality,” Cassel said. “Typically it’s wide open, not a lot of physical play. But we need to use it as a tuneup for nationals. So it will be interesting to see how it goes.”

Until that moment, however, all eyes will be on the way the Illini come out on Friday, and particularly the seniors, who will be honored before the game. Cassel will be the first to say how valuable the seniors have been to the team, considering that three of the four top scoring leaders are seniors. But for the seniors, that gets pushed aside by unfinished business to take care of.

With nationals coming up, for some the season has only just begun.

“We’ve been there before, a lot of things come down on our shoulders with the guys looking up to us to lead the way,” Nemeth said. “You have to step it up one more notch and put it all on the table. You gotta love it, baby!”