Illini branded by Bronchos

Coming into the weekend, all talk surrounding the Illinois hockey team centered on being ready for a hungry Central Oklahoma team that was fighting to earn a playoff berth.

But after back-to-back embarrassing performances — in which the Illini lost 1-0 on Friday and 3-2 on Saturday — it was hard to judge which was the team heading for the postseason and which was fighting to keep its season alive.

“Neither game we played up to our potential,” captain Pierce Butler said. “It was demoralizing to the team, but worse off it’s embarrassing for our fans that come out and support us every night. It’s a huge letdown. We were just awful, tough to watch.”

The Big Pond, once a safe-haven for the Illini (23-10, 12-7-1 CSCHL) has been just as tough for the squad to play at as road arena.

Friday’s shutout loss was the third Illinois has suffered at home this season, while the sweep was the second one they’ve been dealt.

In a penalty-plagued series, the power-play woes the Illini have had to deal with this semester only seemed to sting more as Central Oklahoma’s (24-10-2) success on the unit was the difference in Saturday’s game.

Goalie Mike Burda’s strong start on Friday went by the wayside as the Illini couldn’t solve Bronchos goaltender Justin Sgro.

Bronchos forward AJ Alfrey’s goal six minutes into the game was all Central Oklahoma would need in the win, as the Illini squandered six power-play opportunities.

“I had some opportunities, and I just didn’t finish them,” forward Tom Connell said about the power play. “Sometimes it’s not there, but it’s not that we’re not trying. I have no answer for it.”

On Saturday, the Illini appeared to have solved the problem in the closing minutes of the first period.

With just over two minutes to play in the opening period, Illini forward Daniel Cohen retrieved a loose puck in the near corner and sent it in front of the net to the cutting Andrew Cardona who buried the shot to put the Illini up 1-0 on their third power-play chance.

Forty seconds later, forward Pat Saliba put Illinois up 2-0 after forward Matt Jennings gave a slick back-handed pass in front of the goal to Saliba at the far post.

But it was all downhill from there. The problems the special teams had on Friday proved to just be a warm-up for the poor play Saturday.

“I told (assistant coach) Darin after the first period we’re up 2-0, but we’re not playing too well,” head coach Chad Cassel said.

“We got a couple of goals, but we are making some poor decisions and not playing very well. And then we went on and got worked in the second and third periods,” he added

After failing on a fourth power-play chance, the Illini gave up two power-play goals towards the end of the middle period.

Bronchos forward Erik Jansen cut the Illinois lead to one with a goal with less than five minutes to go in the period, and forward Shawn Steggles followed suit two minutes later to even the score.

Illinois would have three more power-play chances in the third period, only to be disrupted by more bad penalties of their own — including the one that Central Oklahoma defenseman Mike Haszto made the Illini pay for with the game-winning goal seven minutes into the period.

“We have three guys on this team — Tom Connell, Tim Gilbert, and Mike McBride — that show up everyday to play,” Cassel said.

“Outside of that, your guess is as good as mine about whose going to show up to play. It’s tough to gain momentum when your best player one night could be your worse player the next night. And that’s how it’s been all year. We did not deserve to win either one of these games. That’s the bottom line.”