Deep Championship field stands in way of Illini hockey repeat

Emotional as it was to play their final games at the “Big Pond” last weekend, the Illinois hockey team’s seniors knew the journey wasn’t quite over.

With the ACHA National Tournament finally upon them, the reminiscing will have to wait until some unfinished business is addressed in the form of a second straight National Championship.

After compiling the first perfect finish (38-0-0) in the ACHA’s history last season, Illinois, the No. 4 seed in this year’s tournament, will look to be the first repeat champions since the Penn State Icers won four in a row from 1999-2003.

Securing a place in history could be the best senior gift of them all.

“Going through this season with a different group of guys at times, with a new experience, winning it again would be right up there,” senior Jason Nemeth said. “38 and 0 is nice, but repeating would be the best.”

The slate is wiped clean for a final time at Nationals, and the regular season’s events are brushed aside for the 16 teams. For conference foes like Ohio University, winning the CSCHL Championship means nothing at Nationals as their low 10th seeding in the tournament would suggest.

But if the Illini have anything on their side, it’s experience. Aside from the six seniors on the seventh-seeded Rhode Island Rams, who won the championship in 2006, the Illini are the only other team that collectively knows what’s needed to win it all. With most of the 2008 championship team still intact, that experience could spell trouble for the competition.

“Last year, going in undefeated, we had a huge target on our backs,” captain Jordan Pringle said. “Everyone was going to bring everything to try to beat you. This year, we have had some losses, and I think some teams might overlook us, so I think we are in a good position.”

It won’t be a cakewalk to the championship for the Illini. Awaiting them in the first round on Saturday is the 13th-seeded University of Central Oklahoma, a team the Illini split their season series with, including a loss on Sept. 25 that was the first in two seasons for the Illini.

In the loss, back-up goalie DJ Kohler got touched up for three goals in the first period before being replaced by starter Mike Burda. This time around, Burda has full control of the reigns for the Illini, especially after his impressive outing last Saturday when he stopped 14 of 16 shots by the CSCHL All-Stars.

“Burda has the experience and hopefully will bring the consistency needed,” head coach Chad Cassel said. “He’s been banged up the last few weeks but is feeling good now and is excited to play.”

If the Illini defeat Central Oklahoma, the winner of the 12th seed versus fifth seed matchup between Kent State and Oklahoma will be waiting in the quarterfinals. Illinois would prefer a second go-around with the 12th-seeded Golden Flashes, particularly after the 2-0 and 13-1 handlings the Illini dealt them on Sept. 10-11. Oklahoma, on the other hand, is a team the Illini hasn’t faced while Cassel has been coach, which has spanned 12 seasons.

“Oklahoma has a very good program, but Kent State has an outstanding goaltender,” Cassel said. “Riding a hot goaltender is what you need in the tournament, so there aren’t any easy matchups.”

Looking ahead to the semifinals, the Illini could potentially be pitted against top-seeded Lindenwood University in what would be their fourth meeting of the season. The Lions won three of the four regular season games against the Illini and beat them in the consolation game of the CSCHL Tournament on March 1. However, all would be forgotten if the Illini skated through them and into the National Championship game.

“Lindenwood is just a great team,” Pringle said. “They have a lot of good players and play well together, so that is definitely the team to beat.”

Consistency will play a key role in deciding whether the Illini are crowned champions once again. In a single-elimination tournament, with the stakes higher than ever, there’s no margin for error.

“There are no easy matchups this year,” Cassel said. “The field is deeper than ever before, so we’re going to need good goaltending and for the power-play to get hot. Special teams are the difference at Nationals. This season we’ve shown that at times we don’t play with the consistency and great decision-making that you need, but hopefully guys will play hard because it’s one and done.”