No. 4 Illini hockey looks to improve postseason seeding against No. 13 Bronchos

With the regular season coming to a close this weekend, the Illini hockey team has a lot to gain if it can put together two strong nights at the Big Pond, while its opponent, Central Oklahoma, has a lot to lose.

“We need them,” head coach Chad Cassel said. “These are two games that we need to have. We’re going with our best lineup that we have available. It’s a big weekend for us for seeding for the national tournament. It’s two games that we really want to have, so there is a lot of importance for both teams.”

No. 4 Illinois (23-7-1) can solidify valuable postseason position with a strong outing against No. 13 Central Oklahoma (22-12). While 16 teams make the national tournament, the newly installed auto bids, which give tournament spots to the winner of every division, make it an even tighter race to make the tournament. The new rule could put Central Oklahoma’s spot in jeopardy.

“They’ll be ready to come in and play,” junior forward Mike McBride said. “This might be their biggest weekend of the year, with their nationals hopes resting on these two games. If anything, we’re going to see their ‘A’ game both nights, it should be a real exciting series.”

Both Illinois and Central Oklahoma are coming off wins against their respective division leaders. The Illini just snapped an eight-game losing streak against their division leader and rival Lindenwood and the Bronchos traveled to No. 10 Arizona State last weekend and picked up two crucial victories on the road to keep their postseason hopes alive.

“It’s probably the most motivated team we’ll see come in here,” Cassel said. “In my opinion they’re in the national tournament for sure, but from the rankings and with the auto bids and everything they’re right on the bubble. Although, they just swept Arizona State at Arizona State this weekend, which in my opinion definitely puts them in. They’re going to be motivated to come in here, once again on the road playing a team that’s ranked ahead of them, it’s going to be difficult for us.”

The Illini split a series last weekend against No. 1 Lindenwood, and with their win on Saturday night proved to themselves that they are an elite team to be reckoned with in tournament play.

“It lets us know that we can beat them,” senior defenseman Pierce Butler said. “We know we have the talent and the work ethic to beat them, and we were waiting a long time to get it out there. It lets us know that when we see them come tournament time, whether it be league or nationals, that we can take it to them and get the win.”

While Illinois feels confident after last weekend’s win, Coach Cassel is still nervous about his team’s inconsistencies at the most important time of the year. In their past three weekends, which Cassel called “the toughest stretch of the year,” the Illini split each series against No. 5 Iowa State, No. 3 Ohio and No. 1 Lindenwood. Cassel has been stressing the importance of showing up at the rink each night, and not taking any games off.

“I think every game here on out is an important game just to show that we can get on a winning streak because to win a National Championship, to win a league tournament, you got to string a few wins in a row,” forward Andrew Cardona said. “It’s important, especially this week to show that we can string a couple wins against a good time like UCO.”