Illini continue offensive tear, move to 6 straight wins

This weekend, the Illinois hockey team showed how talented it could be when its lines click in sync.

Head coach Chad Cassel has been waiting for his offense to come together, and it finally came through in the shape of 12 goals in two games. The Illini swept a Western Michigan team that was on its heels both Friday and Saturday nights, giving Illinois its first two league wins.

“We’ve got our lines coming together now,” sophomore forward Andrew Cardona said. “It’s a little later in the season, the guys are a bit more comfortable with each other, and we’re picking up a lot more chemistry. Everyone is doing their roles, and it was a big team effort this weekend. Our power play and penalty kill; everything was working this weekend.”

Illinois out-shot Western Michigan 111 to 48 during the series. The Illini also converted 5-of-15 power-play opportunities and only allowed a score one out of 10 times during the Western Michigan power kill. The power play has been the focus of numerous practices this season for the Illini, and its improvement could be the reason for their sudden offensive outburst.

JJ Heredia and Brad Hoelzer led the charge in the two Illini victories. Heredia netted two goals in each of the games, while Hoelzer had one goal on Friday and two on Saturday. One of his goals on Saturday came on the power play, which coach Cassel has been designing through Hoelzer.

“I had a lot of goals on the power play last year, and this year so far,” Hoelzer said. “At the end of the game I had a really good look from (Mike) McBride, and it worked out to put a goal in.”

The highlight of the weekend could have been when, in Saturday’s game, senior forward Matt Jennings slapped a beautiful pass to a wound-up Heredia for the one-timer.

“It was something that just kind of connected,” Jennings said. “The guy just kind of slapped the puck up into me, and I saw JJ and he let it rip. You score that goal in any league, so it was a real nice play all around.”

Even though Illinois was able to net four first period goals in the sweep, the Illini allowed the Broncos to linger. It wasn’t until the second and third periods of each game when Illinois put the game out of reach.

“Both nights it was kind of a slow start,” Cassel said. “But we got stronger as the game went on. I thought our guys did a fairly good job of keeping their cool.”

By the end of Saturday night, it seemed the Illini had gotten into the Broncos’ heads, as numerous fights started to break out.

“It started to get a little chippy out there,” Jennings said. “But I tried to keep my cool as much as I could, but sometimes your emotions get the best of you.”

With the league-opening series out of the way, the Illini will leave the Big Pond next week, carrying a six-game winning streak into a game against No. 5 Iowa State.

“It was a good test, first league win and we got those points,” senior goalie Mike Burda said. “These are games you have to win, these are teams you have to beat. You got to beat them all, and I think we really took care of business like you should at home.”