Illini look to weather the Cyclones

With the blowout parade under their belt, the Illini now have their eyes set on a bigger fish to fry.

After dispatching Western Michigan at home the last two weekends by a combined score of 12-2 in the two games, the Illinois hockey team (8-2, 2-2 CSCHL) is taking its recharged attack on the road this weekend to Iowa State (8-4, 0-4), one of the Illini’s arch-rivals.

“The rivalry keeps getting better and better,” goalie Mike Burda said. “They recruit a lot of good guys, a lot of top players from around the country. So I think this is a big game.”

The last time these two teams saw each other was at the end of February of last season, when the second-ranked Cyclones knocked the third-seeded Illini out of the CSCHL playoffs. While Illinois bounced back to make it to the ACHA National Championship, the win for Iowa State would be the last meaningful one for the season. Since then, the teams have continued to head in opposite directions, with the Illini looking to keep it that way.

Illinois comes into this weekend winning its last six, including its first two conference wins against Western Michigan, in large part due to lockdown goaltending and the scoring attack regaining its magic touch. While the power play stumbled a little last weekend, going 5-for-15, the unit’s combo of defenseman Brad Hoelzer and forward JJ Heredia continues to give the opposition headaches in their efforts to stop them.

Heredia’s four goals last weekend gave him 11 on the year with a total of 15 points, while Hoelzer’s three goals on the weekend raised his total to four to go with his 10 assists. Heredia and Hoelzer are the team’s top two point-scorers. Right on the heels of the two is forward Tom Connell. Bouncing back from a sub-par weekend against Northern Michigan, Connell collected three assists in the wins against Western Michigan to give him 11 on the season and the team lead in that department.

“Our offense has some of the best forwards in the league,” captain Pierce Butler said. “We have confidence that they can put it into the back of the net. We’ve had a couple of high-scoring games lately, and I think that will help us a little.”

The scoring the team has provided during the winning streak has been more than enough support for the one-two punch in net. With goaltenders Burda and DJ Kohler alternating duties in each series, the results have been nearly identical. Each goalie has notched his first shutout of the season during the streak, while keeping the opposition under two goals in all but one of the games.

“We are fortunate to have good goaltending,” head coach Chad Cassel said. “On the road, you got to do all the little things to give yourself a chance to win. Got to stay out of the box, can’t take bad penalties. We’re going to have to focus on that.”

Meanwhile, the Cyclones find themselves looking up at the rest of the pack. Sitting in the cellar of the conference, Iowa State’s losses have come at the hands of conference-foes Lindenwood three weekends ago and Kent State last weekend. With both sweeps taking place on the road, there may not be a team more anxious to get back to the comforts of home.

But home ice won’t be the Illini’s biggest concern. Packing an offense just as dangerous as Illinois’, there isn’t much relief to be found in the net either. Behind freshman David Kurbatsky’s 19 points and junior goalie’s Erik Hudson’s 2.35 GAA, the Illini will have their work cut for them to run their winning streak to eight and keep pace with Lindenwood in the league.

“They’re good at home and know how to work their smaller rink well,” Butler said. “We’ve already dropped two big games against Lindenwood. These are must-need games in every sense of the term.”