Four conference games remain for hockey before much-needed month off

As the checkpoint of the Illinois hockey season looms, two important conference series remain to be played before the season goes on break for a month.

Following a road series against Michigan-Dearborn this weekend, the Illini will have two weeks between games before they wrap up the semester with Kent State at home.

At 1-4-1 in the CSCHL, Michigan-Dearborn (8-5-2) sits in second-to-last in the conference, while Kent State (9-6) is 4-2 in conference, one win ahead of the Illini, who are 14-3 overall but just 3-3 in the CSCHL.

Though it’s the Illini who remain the No. 2-ranked team in the ACHA, the importance of these two series is not something being taken lightly by the players. After dismantling the No. 8 Oklahoma Sooners at home this past weekend, the team hopes the momentum from the two wins will go a long way in the second half of the season as the Illini chase three teams for the top of the conference standings.

“(Those are) points we have to have,” head coach Chad Cassel said. “It’s just important in the big picture because we haven’t done a good job of putting together a good effort against good teams for two games in a row, but we did that against Oklahoma. Hopefully we can keep it rolling and build on it.”

While the rest of the Illini echo those sentiments, the time off between the series may prove to be just as significant for the team. Cassel acknowledged that everyone likes having the time off, but what that break means to the players depends on who you ask.

Forward Tom Connell is one of the players who will enjoy the break, but not too much. Looking forward to some rest, Connell understands that it will be important for the team to not get too comfortable.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” said Connell, the team’s leader in points. “A lot of guys probably won’t skate for a week. I’m going to try to, but it’s a week off of the ice so it’s never the best thing. It’s going to be important to come back and have a good week of practice.”

For others, such as forwards Matt Jennings and JJ Heredia, who are two of the team’s three top goal-scorers, the break couldn’t come at a better time to rest up for the second half of the season. No one knows this better than Jennings, who has been sidelined by a hairline fracture in his wrist since an Oct. 31 game at Iowa State.

“We got a lot of guys banged up right now, the extra week off will help,” Jennings said. “We have been practicing every day here and it takes its toll on you, so it’s nice to get some rest and relaxation here to get ready to play.”

Both Heredia and Jennings are players who shouldn’t fall into that lull Connell fears. In addition to doing some skating, both plan on using the time off to do some running and weightlifting to stay in shape.

Though Jennings will likely miss the last two series of the semester, he believes the break will do more than just get him ready for action.

“Just getting our mind ready to go and to think about our goals for the year and come back and get back at it will be important,” Jennings added.

The mental break for the players might be just as important as the one the bodies will get. The saying goes that the game is 90 percent mental, and no one appears to value that more than goalie Mike Burda.

“It’s a mentally stressful season. That week to clear your head is a nice thing to have,” Burda said. “I just try to lay low, take the time to heart and rest up. As long as the season is, it’s nice to keep your skates off for a while and relax. When you come back you’re actually more motivated to play.”

Keeping in the spirit of time, there will be plenty of it to decide how to spend the break. But there are still the four remaining games to be played — big ones that could go a long way in determining how happy of a break it will really be for the Illini.

“You never want to end a semester with a loss, especially with a conference team,” Connell said. “It’s important for us to come out strong and make a statement, and hopefully to continue to go out strong the rest of the year.”