Hockey splits weekend against Ohio

The Illinois hockey team has developed a knack for late-game dramatics as of late. The squad’s also becoming more accustomed to splitting series with conference opponents.

After taking their second consecutive shootout victory 5-4 on Friday night against the No. 3 Ohio Bobcats, the Illini came out flat Saturday, losing 4-1.

With Saturday’s loss, the Illini (22-6-1, 11-6-1 CSCHL) have now split their last three series with conference opponents and have been officially eliminated from the CSCHL regular-season title race.

“We can’t be losing all these games at home,” head coach Chad Cassel said. “Our last three home weekends we’ve split in league play, and we’ve gotten what we deserved. We didn’t deserve to win those games. We’ve consistently shown that we can’t play consistently.”

The weekend started off with a bang.

In front of an electric standing-room-only crowd Friday, the game played out more like a heavyweight battle, with three ties and four lead changes between the two teams. Forward Tom Connell delivered the final blow in the third round of the shootout after slipping a shot through the five-hole of Ohio goalie Paul Marshall.

The game-winner was the icing on the cake for Connell, who also added a game-tying goal with five minutes left in the first period and another tally seven minutes into the third period to give the Illini an early 3-2 lead. Forwards Rob Deubel and Daniel Cohen rounded out the scoring for the Illini.

“I can’t say for certain it was anything, I should be out playing like that everyday,” Connell said of Friday’s game. “I felt really good, my legs felt good. I felt like I was prepared and well rested, but you should play as hard as you can every night.”

But the intensity couldn’t be duplicated on Saturday.

The Illini were flat from the start, and only a late surge in the third period served as proof that they showed up Saturday.

Goalie Mike Burda, who came up with critical stops in his 37-save performance Friday, grinded out another strong effort Saturday, but the energy and play in front of him didn’t live up to Friday’s display.

“Killing their penalties was big, especially in overtime and late in the third. I think that was key for us to turn the momentum back our way Friday,” Burda said. “But we might have gotten a little comfortable after Friday’s win. I know we all felt excited about beating OU, but we just got to carry that same intensity from Friday into Saturday.”

Forwards Billy Hermann and Tyler Pilmore got the Bobcats out to an early lead in the first period before forward Jay Mazzarella extended the lead to 3-0 heading into the third.

With just over a minute gone by in the third period, Illini defenseman Gabe Heller put the Illini on the scoreboard with a shot from the blue line, cashing in 30 seconds into Illinois’ first power play of the night.

The surge proved to be only momentary, as two more power-play chances went unfilled before Ohio forward Ryan Tessmer put the game away with an empty-net goal with 23 seconds left in the game.

“We went from one of our best efforts, feeding off of each other in terms of playing physical, to not Saturday,” Connell said. “I sound like a broken record, but we are not a good enough team to come into a game like this. We can’t not work hard and expect success.”