Hockey improves power play just in time for national tournament

With one series to get his hockey team on track before the ACHA Tournament, Illinois head coach Chad Cassel knew what he needed to see out of his team against Indiana last weekend — an improved power play that he could be confident would show up in every game of the national tournament.

Cassel’s team rose to the occasion on Friday and Saturday in the form of five power-play goals on 11 chances against Indiana as the Illini swept the series.

“We came out ready to play,” senior forward JJ Heredia said. “Our power play was clicking, which was key to our success. It’s going to be important, really boils down to special teams.”

In the Illini’s last six games before this past weekend’s matchup, the squad had gone 1-for-31 on power-play attempts. The cold streak had Cassel and the rest of the unit shrugging their shoulders as to why they weren’t finishing on the man-advantage.

“It’s a streaky thing,” Cassel said. “Up until this weekend it had been on a downturn, but after this weekend it was something that was a bit encouraging.”

Heredia’s return from a shoulder injury, coupled with the improved play of senior Matt Jennings, was a huge lift for the special teams unit over the weekend. Jennings, who suffered a hairline fracture on his wrist, and Heredia have both battled injuries this season, with Heredia returning as recently as two weeks ago for the league tournament. The two turned in stellar performances in the tune-up weekend as Heredia scored on the power play Friday night and Jennings scored one on both nights.

The two could provide the boost Cassel has been looking for after a season-ending injury to sophomore Andrew Cardona, one of Illinois’ most improved forwards in the second half of the season.

“Andrew Cardona has been a big loss for us, he’s been scoring a lot of goals for us this semester and that’s something that’s at a premium, especially it seems like on this team, this year. It’s a loss, but someone else will have to pick up in his spot.”

With that spot potentially filled, Illinois has restored enthusiasm for its special teams.

The Illini are staring down the biggest weekend of the season, the ACHA tournament, and the power play is sure to be one of the X-factors.

“I feel a lot better about or power play,” senior forward Tom Connell said. “Our movement is better, we’re flying around out there a lot better, doing a better job attacking the zone and we’re just trying to simply get pucks moving towards the net. We’re not trying to do too much.”