Illini hockey to face Michigan-Dearborn without head coach

Before the Illini hockey team heads home for a week off and some turkey and stuffing, it will face a talented Michigan-Dearborn team in a divisional matchup without the leadership of head coach Chad Cassel behind the bench.

Cassel’s wife went into labor Thursday, and thus he will not be traveling with the team this weekend.

“It seems like something like this happens every year,” senior captain Pierce Butler said.

“He’s had like three kids since I’ve been here, but we know what to do. Chad is out there as the helm of the ship, but in the end, he can say whatever he wants — we have to play the game.”

Illinois’ interim coach for the weekend will be assistant coach Darin Trulock, who has served beside Cassel for six years. As assistant coach, Trulock was thrust into a leadership role numerous times but noted it can be difficult to be the lone leader behind a hockey bench.

“There’s more responsibility,” Trulock said. “Being completely by yourself on the bench, there’s a lot to watch for by yourself. It’s nice to have two guys over there if at all possible, but we’ll get by.”

With Trulock navigating the squad solo, he is relying heavily on his veterans to step up and assist him with the leadership role.

The captains will be depended upon to a large extent, particularly injured senior Matt Jennings, who helped run practice on Thursday.

“I’m just trying to keep the guys focused and thinking about the tasks at hand,” Jennings said.

“It’s different watching the games and just seeing what I can see up from the stands and relaying it back to the guys during the games. It’s been tough sitting up there, but they’ve been playing really well.”

Coming off of their self-proclaimed strongest series of the year, the Illini feel confident about this weekend, even with Cassel gone.

This weekend presents a big series for the No. 2 Illini (14-3), who currently sit in fifth place. Illinois has six points in the CSCHL, while Michigan-Dearborn resides in second from the bottom with three points. Lindenwood leads the league with 20 points but has played four more league games than Illinois.

Although it had its struggles early in the season, Michigan-Dearborn played second-place Ohio University down to the wire last weekend, losing 5-3 and 2-1.

“They’ve lost a few games here and there,” Butler said. “I think they’re 1-4 in conference, but they’ve knocked off a few teams here and there, and as of late we’ve heard they’re playing really well. They’re a tough team to beat.”

The Wolves boast some dominant forwards that could give the Illini fits, including reigning league MVP Michael Macari, who already has 14 goals on the season and 21 assists.

“He’s a good player, he’s fast,” Butler said.

“Last time they came here he was injured, so we didn’t actually get to see him, but he rakes up points. He’s got a good shot, he’s a real deal player. He’s a guy that can take over a game, so we’ll watch out for him, but Oklahoma had a few kids like that and we silenced them to two goals.”

For the Illini, the name of the game will be consistency and building off of their superb performance against Oklahoma. Michigan-Dearborn also houses a small ice rink different from the “Big Pond.” The Illini have been able to make the transition to the smaller ice seamlessly on the road this year.

Without Cassel, the Illini could have their hands full this weekend.

However, most of the players are not nervous for the road series.

“We’ve got a lot of seniors, so we should be able to pave the way,” senior forward JJ Heredia said.

“We’ll show the younger guys that even though Chad is not here, you still got to play hard and get two W’s for the weekend.”