Hockey’s seniors soak up last weekend on ‘Pond’ for Illini

Although the Illinois hockey team followed up Friday’s 6-3 win against Illinois State with a 4-3 loss to the CSCHL All-Stars on Saturday, the outcomes were the last thing on anyone’s mind.

On a weekend when the seniors were trying to soak up their last moments at the “Big Pond,” the players didn’t leave disappointed.

The seniors decided to hold their ceremony before Friday’s game, and with parents on hand to celebrate the occasion, the emotion alone would have been more than enough to garner a win against the Redbirds.

“With my parents here, it was great,” senior captain Jordan Pringle said about Senior Night.

“They started driving me to hockey when I was 5 years old, so it’s been a long ride playing the game. We only have a couple games left, so this was definitely a moment for the family, and I was just looking to play hard.”

For Pringle and the other four players that played in the World University Games, Friday’s game was also their first time playing with the Illini since the Ohio series from Feb. 6-7. Their affect was seen as soon as the puck dropped.

The Illini outshot Illinois State 55-17 and converted on 2-of-7 power play opportunities. Seniors Pringle, Jason Nemeth and Johnny Liang did their punishing in the third period, tallying two goals and four assists between them.

“I thought we got stronger as the game went on Friday,” head coach Chad Cassel said. “We were able to put more skill on the ice and the power play definitely improved.”

Friday’s festivities were only a tuneup for Saturday’s All-Star Game. Despite the coaches and players approaching the All-Star Game differently, the fun of the game wasn’t lost on anybody.

Even Cassel, a fervent opponent of a game pitting the rest of the conference against the hosting team, conceded that the game wasn’t all bad.

“I hate All-Star games, personally, when it’s your team versus the All-Stars,” Cassel said. “But I know it’s much more fun for the players. To have the players from other teams interacting and getting to know the other guys is always nice.”

Instead of exchanging punches, racking up penalties and misconducts, and generally despising their opponent, the Illini players skated off the ice with players from around the league.

Gone was the shouting and anger, replaced by laughter and joking. Teams like Lindenwood and Iowa State, bitter rivals during the season, were pals for the night.

“It’s a lot of fun, a little more skill and less hitting,” Pringle said. “You get to meet a lot of guys from around the league and its fun to play them in less of a competitive way. Guys understand this is meant to be fun.”

Even in situations like the one Illini forward Sam Fatigato found himself in the first period, the fun of the game trumped all.

Roughly 10 minutes in, Fatigato laid out to block a shot from an Ohio player.

Though the play caught the concerned eye of Illini coaches, the pain that shot through his leg wasn’t enough to damper the festivities.

After Robert Morris defenseman Chris Peter helped Fatigato off the ice, the young forward sat and waited for the game to end, and for the mocking to begin, in commemoration of the first blocked shot of his career.

“It doesn’t hurt too bad right now, just a little stiff,” Fatigato said.

“It should be fine by Tuesday’s practice. It was a lot of fun though. The whole game was different with a lot more skill, but it was fun to participate in for those 10 minutes.”

The injury would virtually be the only thing that slowed down the rest of the game.

With only three penalties called in the game, all coming in the third period, the game became a showcase for dazzling puck-handling and incredible goals.

The Illini stole the show in the second period with goals from Brad Hoelzer and Pringle.

With about four minutes left in the period, Hoelzer took the puck coast-to-coast and danced his way through the entire All-Star squad, topping the play off with a back-hand shot into the net.

Not to be outdone, Pringle received the puck off a turnover in the All-Star’s zone and walked in on Kent State’s goalie Ryan Gregory.

With a quick move that dropped Gregory to the ice, Pringle tapped the puck in for an easy finish.

Regardless of what the final score may have read, the Illini seniors didn’t go home losers.

“My four years here have been the best experience of my life,” Nemeth said.

“I’ll never be on this ice again, so it was a little emotional but fun out there. We were playing hard with it being last game. It hasn’t really kicked in yet, so it’s easy to just head into Nationals.”