It’s now or never for Illinois hockey seniors

If the underwhelming performances this past weekend at home against Central Oklahoma did anything for the Illinois hockey team, they may have at least given some of the coaches and players some perspective.

For a team that has been searching for answers all season to solve its problems of consistency and effort, head coach Chad Cassel seemed to have found some sort of resolve after Saturday night’s collapse.

“Our seniors lead the way, so I would point the finger at them. We have 10 seniors; I guess this is how they want to go out,” Cassel said.

There are nine seniors listed on the roster, but considering how many juniors are on the team and how long the core of this team has played together, it’s a message that can be taken to heart by just about everyone.

“This year we get five — maybe 10 — guys that come ready to play, and that doesn’t cut it,” captain Pierce Butler said following Saturday’s defeat.

Despite the criticism, Butler, who is one of those nine seniors, painted a much more optimistic portrait of the team than Cassel was willing to concede. After the 3-2 defeat, Cassel added that only forwards Tom Connell, Tim Gilbert and Mike McBride “show up every day to play.”

The only senior among that trio is Connell.

“I can’t stress how fast these four years go,” Connell said after Saturday’s game. “As much as I hate to hear seniors say how great a class theirs is, I actually thought our class was better than their class (2008 national championship team). This year was supposed to be our turn to shine, but I’d say we’ve faltered.”

Outside of a few forwards and the goaltender, the seniors’ numbers have not improved significantly since last season — and in some cases have taken a step back. While injuries have kept senior forwards Matt Jennings and JJ Heredia out for significant chunks of time, the collection of seniors (including five forwards and two defensemen) has not been able to make up for the goals and assists of those who graduated last season.

“It’s really frustrating, especially as a senior,” Connell said. “We have two more home games, maximum. It’s tough.”

Those two games come two weekends from now, when Illinois caps off its season against Indiana. But before the final skate on the Big Pond, Illinois has the CSCHL Tournament at Iowa State to tend to this weekend.

Seeded third in the tournament, the Illini will face No. 6-seed Michigan-Dearborn on Friday morning. While the Illini handled Michigan-Dearborn in relatively easy fashion earlier this year, Butler knows that the squad can’t overlook any opponent at this point and that a cohesive effort will be needed to string three victories together for the CSCHL Tournament crown — and that it must start with the seniors.

“We’ve proven that we can lose to pretty bad teams, but we need to move on and get everyone to play together and consistently,” Butler said. “Not one guy trying to do all of it and one guy not trying to do anything. Every guy needs to contribute, and we didn’t get that this weekend.”