Illinois hockey breaks Lindenwood skid with weekend split on the road

Playing against Lindenwood, a team that doesn’t have many weaknesses, the Illinois hockey team needed to capitalize on rare mistakes and slip-ups to hang with the top-ranked team in the country.

On Saturday, the Illini did just that.

After sputtering Friday with a 5-1 loss, Illinois rebounded Saturday with a 4-3 shootout win to cap off the toughest stretch of its season.

With the win, the Illini (23-7-1, 12-7-1 CSCHL) snapped an eight-game losing streak against the Lions and got a step closer to locking up the third seed in the upcoming CSCHL Tournament.

“Coach (Chad Cassel) said on the bus before the game that we had lost eight straight to Lindenwood, and you never like to hear that, especially against your biggest rival, especially after they beat us in nationals last year,” goaltender DJ Kohler said. “You just got to feed off that and come out with a lot of energy. It’s always fun beating Lindenwood.”

It was anything but fun for the Illini on Friday. In a lackluster performance, the Illini were essentially out of it from the drop of the puck.

Lindenwood’s Steve Balint got the scoring started five minutes into the game. He began with a quick shot off a face-off win before Jake Coyle doubled the lead six minutes later with an easy shot in front of the crease off a terrific save by Illini goaltender Mike Burda.

Illinois forward Tom Connell breathed a little life into Illinois with a goal 30 seconds into the second period, but it was short-lived, as the Lions’ Adam Krefski answered back with a blast six minutes later.

The Lions added two more in the third, including an empty-netter with six seconds to go, to put the dominating victory to bed.

“It was disappointing because it was such a big game,” Cassel said. “To not play with energy and take bad penalties, it was disappointing.”

But the mistakes and mental lapses that plagued the Illini on Friday became the sources of success for the squad on Saturday.

Winning in shootout fashion for the third series in a row, the Illinois kept the pressure on Lindenwood all game Saturday, roping the Lions into bad penalties and costly mistakes.

“We played hard out there, it was a complete team effort,” Illinois forward Andrew Cardona said. “I don’t think one guy took a shift off. We got to keep doing that.”

After Krefski got the scoring started five minutes into the game, Cardona scored the first of his two goals seven minutes later off of Joe Sullivan’s pass.

Carson Hamill put the Lions up again early in the second period, but Cardona leveled the score once again with a similar goal in front of the net, this time off of Daniel Cohen’s feed.

“I was trying to play a lot smarter, trying to get the puck deep and get shots on net and then crash the net,” Cardona said. “It was a matter of execution — and we did a good job.”

Sullivan’s goal late in the second period to put the Illini up looked to be the game-winner until Lindenwood’s Grant Gorczyca buried Tim Gardner’s pass with less than five minutes in the final period to send the game into overtime.

Despite controlling much of the extra period, Lindenwood couldn’t finish the game off, as Kohler came up with critical saves.

As the game moved into a shootout, the Illini responded right on cue — Connell buried the game-winner and Kohler denied the opponent yet again.

“It’s tough to give up a goal so late in the game, but we had to move on and get the next one,” Cassel said. “It was a big win for us. It proved to ourselves that not only we can play with them but beat them. We needed to work harder for 60 minutes, and I think we did a good job of that.”