Illini gear up for second leg of tough stretch against Ohio

The excitement doesn’t slow down this weekend for Illinois hockey.

Coming off an emotional shootout win last Saturday against the No. 6 Iowa State Cyclones, the Illini (21-5-1, 10-5-1 CSCHL) now have their eyes set on the No. 3 Ohio Bobcats, who also are in second place in the CSCHL.

As draining as a long shootout win against a good opponent can be for a team, the same thinking doesn’t hold true for this Illini squad. With important games the next couple of weekends, the Illini are more excited than ever to face one of its biggest rivals and get a winning streak going.

“A game like that is one that keeps your momentum going, and that was a big win for us. We played really well and it was nice to get the victory,” forward Matt Jennings said. “They are a very well-coached team, they always bring their A-game when we play. We need to turn it up for these two games.”

In picking up the energy for this series, the Illini will have to do so without their leading goal-scorer, JJ Heredia. Along with dropping the first game of the series against Iowa State, 1-0, the Illini lost the forward to a separated shoulder. With a big scoring void now in the top lines, defenseman Brad Hoelzer has been shifted to the forward corps, but head coach Chad Cassel is looking for other guys to pick up the slack as well.

“I’d like to see Matt Jennings step up, some of the veteran guys who have been through it before,” Cassel said. “Tom Connell is going to need to continue to play well for us. Young guys like Andrew Cardona, Joe Sullivan and Sam Fatigato will need to step up more.”

But with Hoelzer gone from the blue lines, other players believe this series will hinge on more than just offense.

“I think defensively this is a big weekend, playing a lot in the zone,” forward Daniel Cohen said. “I think the penalty kill is going to big. And when we take penalties, we need to make sure they don’t capitalize on them.”

The Illini will have to step up at both ends of the ice to keep up with the Bobcats. Despite losing three of its last four games, Ohio (25-6, 11-1 CSCHL) sits in second place in the conference standings — just two points behind Lindenwood despite playing two fewer games — and passed the No. 4 Illini in the national rankings this past week.

On the offensive end, the Illini have to deal with a pair of 40-point scorers in Michael Schultz and Tyler Pilmore. While Schultz has paced the Bobcats scoring with 22 goals, Pilmore has been setting up a variety of Ohio scorers with 31 assists.

“Like most Ohio teams, they work very hard and are very disciplined,” Cassel said. “They work hard for 60 minutes. They were very young last year and had a really good team, so they’ve returned the team and added a few guys.”

Defensively, Cassel believes the Bobcats are as good as anyone. Though characterized as a physical team, much of the defensive success can be pinned on goaltender Paul Marshall. With a 17-4 record on the year, Marshall comes into the series with .930 save percentage and 1.65 goals against average.

“They are a very physical team, so we need to stay physical and continue outhitting them,” goalie Mike Burda said. “I know their goalie is a star so we need to get pucks to the net quick.”

With important points on the line, a bitter rival coming in and an important series ahead, being energized may be the easiest thing for the Illini this weekend.

“I think Ohio is probably our biggest rival,” Cassel said. “We need to consistently play well and play with a lot of energy each and every night if we want to have success. It’s going to be a tough weekend for us, but we knew it was going to be a tough stretch, and hopefully it keeps everyone on their toes.”