Illinois hockey must turn it on for CSCHL Tournament

If there is one thing Illinois hockey head coach Chad Cassel has been attempting to drill into the heads of his players this week, it’s that if they take one game off — or one period off — that’s the end of it.

Cassel and his third-seeded Illini (23-9-1,12-7-1 CSCHL) hit Ames, Iowa, this weekend, to compete in the CSCHL Tournament.

“It’s going to come down to us making the difference, and us caring, and us working on the ice,” senior defenseman Pierce Butler said. “We’ve seen that we can beat the No. 1 team, the No. 2 team and other top teams, but now it’s time for us to do it when it counts.”

Illinois is coming off a disappointing sweep to Central Oklahoma on its home ice last weekend, and Cassel has called upon his seniors to be a vocal presence on the ice that could help the Illini’s frustrations, namely what Cassel called the team’s inability to put together “a consistent effort.”

“It’s got to come from them,” Cassel said. “At this point, obviously they are in the fourth year of their career here, and they’ve been through all of this before. Maybe they feel like they can turn it on and turn it off, but you can’t.”

If the Illini “turn it off” this weekend, they can kiss the league title goodbye. In order to win this weekend’s tournament, the team has to win three straight games, something Illinois hasn’t done all semester.

“We’re a tournament team,” senior goalie Mike Burda said. “We do the little things right every game, and I think those are the big things that make a difference come tournament time. Whether it’s on special teams, blocking shots, getting pucks when we have to, we’re a great tournament team. The older guys know it and I think the younger guys are starting to know it, too.”

Burda likely will get the start in the net Friday against Michigan-Dearborn, as Cassel touted him for his consistent effort this semester. If Burda responds well Friday, Cassel said he could ride his glove all the way through the tournament. If he is roughed up Friday and Illinois still wins, the squad stands in good position with senior DJ Kohler waiting in the wings.

“Once again, we’re in a good position where we have two goalies who can play, two goalies who can win games for us,” Cassel said. “We’ll just have to see how things play out.”

Illinois’ first game against sixth-seeded Michigan-Dearborn (20-12-3, 8-9-1 CSCHL) on Friday is not one to be overlooked. Cassel praised Michigan-Dearborn sophomore forward Michael Macari, who has scored 36 goals and has 36 assists this season, as one of the best players in the ACHA.

“They like to open it up offensively, they’re a dangerous team,” Cassel said. “We’re going to have to play well defensively, do a good job of staying out of the box and they have a good power play. They are going to be very motivated and excited to play because they didn’t make the national tournament, so this is their national tournament and they’re approaching it that way.”

Illinois might get some much-needed help back for the tournament, as leading goal-scorer JJ Heredia practiced in full equipment this week but did not take part in all of the drills. The Illini want to make sure they have him for the ACHA national tournament, but he may be able to make an appearance in what would be his final league tournament of his career. Heredia would be a big help to a struggling offense that went 1-for-16 on the power play against Central Oklahoma last weekend.

“I think there is more of an emphasis on executing and finishing when we have the opportunities because this is it,” senior forward Tom Connell said. “This is the last couple weekends we have to do that, so might as well do it while we can.”