Illini hockey looks to move past Jennings injury, Basili departure

As bad as last Saturday’s game against Iowa State was for the Illinois hockey team, the problems off the ice may present more of a challenge.

With the Illini (9-3. 3-3 CSCHL) looking to bounce back against Iowa this weekend at home, they will have to do so without forward Matt Jennings and defenseman Mike Basili.

Jennings, the team’s second-leading scorer with eight goals, was hurt midway through Saturday’s game. Diagnosed as an hairline fracture of the wrist, he will be out of commission for at least the next two weeks, but head coach Chad Cassel thinks it could be closer to four.

“I asked the trainer if I could play, but he said no. It was really painful to hold the stick,” Jennings said about the injury. “That was just another nail in the coffin for me; sitting in the stands watching them (Iowa State) score another goal.”

What could prove to be more of a concern regarding Jennings’ injury is the void that is left on the power-play. A staple of the unit the last couple of seasons, Jennings has played an important part in its success. But with the inconsistency the unit has shown this season, figuring out who to plug in to the unit now is one more puzzle piece the Illini do not want to deal with.

“It hurts us a little bit,” head coach Chad Cassel said. “Matt’s been playing well for us; scores a lot of goals, has a lot of assists for us. But it gives an opportunity for someone else to step in.”

A short list of candidates to take over for Jennings includes forwards Daniel Cohen and Mike McBride. Both have seen a lot of time on the power-play and have comparable stats (Cohen has 3 goals, 6 assists to McBride’s 2 goals, 8 assists) — but neither has the left-handed shot like Jennings, something Cassel would like. Despite the difference, Cassel is confident that “they’ll be able to handle it.”

Meanwhile, the vacancy left on the blue-line by Basili is something that seems easier to fix, but harder to understand.

One of the heralded freshmen that joined the Illini this season, Basili quit last week due to what Cassel called “personal matters.”

“He just had some personal issues going on in his life, and he didn’t think he was quite right,” Cassel said. “He thought it was best to take a break from the team, and we want what’s best for him. There are no hard feelings, and I wish him the best.”

As for the rest of the team, no one appears to know what really happened. Senior defenseman Brad Hoelzer believes that Basili’s scratch from the lineup in the Saturday’s game might have played a part in his decision to quit. One thing is for certain, no one saw it coming.

“It definitely hurts our defense core,” said Hoelzer about the departure of Basili. “It is going to set us back a little bit, but once we return to working hard in practice I think we’ll get it going again in the season. We just need to look past it.”

While Cassel acknowledges there are a few guys in the mix to take Basili’s minutes, one guy that appears to be standing out from the rest of the pack is sophomore Brian Saliba.

Continuing to log more minutes for the Illini, Saliba churned out another strong performance against Iowa State last weekend. While he hasn’t cracked the scoring column yet, he appears to have the endorsement of players at the top of that list.

“Saliba has played great,” Hoelzer said. “He has definitely stepped up and can take Basili’s spot.”

However the slots are filled on paper, coaches and players alike understand that it’s the play on the ice that needs more fixing.

“Throughout the course of the season you’re going to lose players, (and) injuries have been much worse than they’ve been,” Cassel said. “But we have good depth. It’s the consistency of the effort we’re looking for.”