Illinois hockey looks to flash own skill against Kent State

Illinois’ JJ Heredia (21) attempts to score a goal against Western Michigan’s Riley Gill (30) during Friday’s game at the Ice Arena on Oct. 23, 2009. Illinois won 5-0.

By Alex Paull

As tough as it may have been for players to get back to their normal schedules after a week off, the Illinois hockey team’s series against No. 16 Kent State may prove to be even tougher.

In the final series of the semester, the Golden Flashes (13-6, 4-2 CSCHL) roll into the Big Pond this weekend, looking to pull even with the Illini (16-3, 5-3 CSCHL) for second place overall in the conference standings.

“We can’t afford to lose any more points if we want to give ourselves a chance to win the regular-season championship,” head coach Chad Cassel said.

“We have had a good semester up until this point. We got to make sure we finish it off the right way.”

Winners of eight of its last 10, including a sweep of No. 3 Iowa State, Kent State has relied heavily on its offense up to this point in the season.

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Scoring in bunches, the Golden Flashes have tallied seven or more goals six times this year, three of which have come in the last four games.

Led by forwards Justin Phenney (37 points) and Mike Lepre (24 points), Kent State’s offense has made up for the shaky defense, which, despite having a strong goaltender in Ryan Gregory (2.61 GAA), has allowed six goals or more four times this season.

“They’re very offensive-minded and rely heavily on their goaltending,” Cassel said. “They have outstanding goaltending in Gregory, who beats teams on a regular basis all by himself.”

Not to be outdone, the Illini are riding a winning streak of their own.

Winners of its last seven, Illinois hasn’t cracked the seven-goal plateau during the stretch, but its all-around balance has managed to keep opposing teams in check.

Along with leading goal-scorer JJ Heredia, who has 14 on the year, the firepower has come off the sticks of seniors Brad Hoelzer and Tom Connell.

While Hoelzer has been instrumental to the team’s power play, Connell has done most of his damage during the winning streak, collecting 16 of his team-leading 30 points in the last seven games.

“We’re playing really well right now,” Heredia said. “We’re getting guys back from injuries and making a couple of shifts on the lines. We have good chemistry right now.”

Even more impressive has been the goaltending for the Illini. Backed by the powerful combo of goalies DJ Kohler and Mike Burda, Illinois has held its opponents to a goal or less in six of the seven games during the streak.

“We understand that we got a lot of big games next semester, so it’s going to be really important to finish strong here,” Kohler said about the team’s recent play. “We just have to come out hard with strong efforts both nights, (and) put a lot of shots on net. It will be important to jump on them early.”

While Kent State may have trouble deciding what side of the puck to focus on, Illinois players feel the plan will begin and end around disrupting Gregory’s routine in net.

“We’ve seen him a lot,” captain Pierce Butler said. “He likes to come out to play the puck a lot, which can help them but can also hurt them a lot, too. So we’re going to put JJ in front of him to make sure he isn’t seeing the puck well, and shoot a lot at him.”

Without looking too far into the future, the Illini know the importance of winning this series goes beyond just ending the semester on a good note.

“These next 10 games are all league games, and they’re against good teams,” Butler said. “So each weekend we got to get a little bit better to be ready for Lindenwood again.”