Illini hockey success not measured solely by wins

History tends to show that duplicating a perfect season is nearly impossible. As Illinois hockey captain Jordan Pringle said, matching 2007-08’s perfect 38-0-0 record wasn’t expected.

Head coach Chad Cassel knew losing six seniors from that squad, coupled with the ushering in of 13 new players this year, would make for a tougher 2008-09 campaign. What he didn’t expect were the many obstacles the team faced, from key injuries to the adversity the Illini confronted when five major contributors left for the World University Games.

However, on their way to a 29-11-1 record, this Illinois team carved out its own niche, ultimately falling just short of a repeat, losing in the national championship to arch-rival Lindenwood. It was the journey en route to that game that set this year’s squad apart from years past.

“Coming off of last season with the perfect record, that was all anyone wanted to talk about and that’s all we heard,” Cassel said. “But this was a much different team, and I was very happy with how they responded and (they) definitely made a statement this season.”

Facing what Cassel called deeper competition, the Illini dug in and battled for wins. While the wins weren’t “pretty,” as the team would say, the players did the dirty work that the squad wasn’t accustomed to in 2007-08.

“We played very physical and spent a lot of time talking about the importance of doing some of the little things needed,” Cassel said. “I think our guys took it to heart and continued to do some of the little things. Overall it was good for our team.”

The season picked up where it left off last year for the Illini, who won their first nine games. But the team’s joyride came to a halt in a 6-4 loss at Central Oklahoma, a loss that snapped a 47-game winning steak. The Illini then showed their resilience by winning their next five, including two shutouts by Mike Burda, who played a crucial role all year, finishing with a 1.89 goals against average.

“The goalie has the ability to take over games and Burda did that. He played extremely well this season and had some incredible games,” Pringle said.

A separated shoulder suffered at home against Lindenwood on Feb. 13 relegated Burda to the bench until the semi-final of the conference tournament two weeks later. On Feb. 14, the Illini were shut out at home for the first time in ten years and extended their losing streak to a season-high four games.

At the same time, the Illini lost scoring and leadership when Pringle, forwards Johnny Liang and JJ Heredia and defensemen Pierce Butler and Brad Hoelzer left for the World University Games in China.

Once again, the Illini pushed through adversity, sweeping then-No. 4 Iowa State. Backup goalie DJ Kohler shined in the series, winning both games. Complementing him was the emergence of younger players who were thrust into new roles to fill the void of the five who departed.

After two goals in the Iowa State series, sophomore Daniel Cohen added three goals and an assist lending a larger hand for the Illini in the CSCHL Tournament. Though the Illini placed fourth, seeing the younger guys like Cohen step up and perform was as important as anything.

“I think that when a bunch of us were gone, guys who didn’t have large roles felt the urgency to step up,” Pringle said about the younger players. “Guys like Cohen, and (Sam) Fatigato, and (Brian) Saliba and (Justin) Wirt played huge for us, and I think that will carry over into next year.”

The season would mean nothing if the Illini underachieved at the ACHA Nationals, the tournament that the players and coaches alike say are the only games that really matter. Rolling up their sleeves once again, the Illini ground out key wins on their way to the championship game.

Burda erased any doubts about his shoulder injury, propelling the Illini to wins with amazing play. He played a large part in making some games instant classics, including a double-overtime win against Oklahoma and an upset of the second-seeded Penn State Icers.

Ending the season after the win against Penn State would have been perfect for the Illini, but instead the season was concluded on a losing note, as Lindenwood beat Illinois, 4-1, in the title. With all-tournament accolades spread throughout the team, the hardware showed just how successful of a season Illinois had.

“To get to the national championship is one of the toughest things to do, and we did it in back-to-back seasons,” senior Jason Nemeth said. “Losing it was one of the most heartbreaking things, and we had a tough road to the championship. But looking back on the season, it has to be looked (at) as being successful.”