Power play a concern for Illinois hockey following CSCHL Tournament loss

Different location. Similar result.

After dispatching of Michigan-Dearborn, 5-3, in the opening round of the CSCHL Tournament on Friday, the Illinois hockey team fell 4-1 to arch-rival Lindenwood in the semifinals Saturday.

With the weekend split, the Illini have now split five of their last six weekends of games and fallen to 1-9 in their last 10 meetings against the Lions.

But perhaps the more startling statistic is the 5-for-65 rut the Illinois power-play unit finds itself mired in since the start of the semester, including an 0-for-9 showing over the weekend.

“It’s concerning, we almost wish we could play 5-on-5,” said captain Pierce Butler.

“But the fact of the matter is it doesn’t work like that and we need to be able to capitalize on it.”

While five of those missed power-play opportunities came in Friday’s game against the Wolves, it was the defensive lapses that the third-seeded Illini pinpointed as the reason for a close score.

Collecting goals from five different scorers, Illinois didn’t have as much trouble finding the back of the sixth-seeded Michigan-Dearborn’s net as it did helping goaltender Mike Burda keep the puck out of their own.

Forwards JJ Heredia and Sam Fatigato got the Illini on the board first before Wolves forward Matt McCaig sliced into the deficit with an unseemly goal off a feed from Anthony Rini at the other end of the ice.

Illinois’ Daniel Cohen would net an early second-period goal before both teams exchanged goals in the third period.

“We struggled defensively on Friday,” head coach Chad Cassel said.

“Burda was solid, making some huge saves. We played much better on Saturday.”

Outside of a two-minute stretch in the first period, the Illini were just as good as the No. 1 Lions on Saturday.

But like most late-tournament games, the difference boiled down to special teams — and Illinois didn’t have the answer for Lindenwood’s punches.

“It comes down to the power play when you are in big games like that. They capitalized on mistakes and we never did,” Butler said.

“When you’re playing Lindenwood, you have to capitalize on their mistakes.”

The Illini had their chances in the early going.

Coming out as the more energetic and stronger team, Illinois forced Lindenwood into some bad mistakes and kept a majority of the action in the Lions zone.

However, with less than seven minutes to go in the opening period, the Illini let their guard down momentarily — but in costly fashion.

Lindenwood forward Carson Hamill netted the game’s first goal off a redirection in front and added his second goal two minutes later, receiving a feed from Niklas Bunnstedt behind the net.

Lions forward Neeco Belanger tacked on the first of his two power-play goals in the first minute of the second period before forward Sam Fatigato got the Illini on the scoreboard with a goal from the near circle that found its way through a screen and beat the Lindenwood goalie glove-side.

The momentum would be short-lived, as Belanger would extend the lead back to three with a quick one-timer in front of Burda on the Lions’ fourth power-play.

Illinois would have a power-play opportunity early on in the third period, but the unit was shut down for the fourth and final time.

“I thought we played well, came out with some energy against Lindenwood and we worked hard,” Heredia said. “We had a couple mistakes that really cost us and took the wind out of us. And getting down on a team like that it’s hard to come back.”

While the recent history against Lindenwood isn’t much of a concern, the results the Illini had on Saturday remain are — especially with the ACHA National Tournament coming up and more high-caliber teams on the horizon.

“We played with a lot of effort and intensity, which is what you want when playing in a big tournament,” Butler said.

“But in general, it’s a matter of capitalizing on a team’s mistakes, and Saturday we didn’t and that’s something we are going to need to do come national time.”