Inconsistent Illini hockey splits series

Homecoming weekend for the No. 10 Illini had a similar storyline to “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Similarly to the main character in Stevenson’s story, the Illini seemed to suffer from a split personality, winning the first game 2-1 and losing the second game by the same score.

“On Friday night, we controlled the game pretty much all night,” head coach Chad Cassel said. “(Saturday night), the effort just wasn’t there; we got a few individual efforts here and there.”

Since league play has started, the strengths and question marks of the Orange and Blue have flip-flopped as well. Through the first six games of the year, Illinois scored 35 goals. The Illini registered just six in their last four games and have been much better in their own end of late. Despite losing top defenseman Justin Wirt, Illinois only gave up four goals in their last four games.

“A lot of us are used to playing with each other now,” defenseman Chris Peter said. “Our goaltender has been playing really, really well, and that’s been a big help overall.”

The improved defensive effort was most apparent Friday, when senior defenseman Gabe Heller was given a five-minute major penalty and a game disqualification for checking Brian Rooney from behind. The play left the home squad shorthanded for a full five minutes, and without Heller, Illinois was forced to play with just five defensemen. The Illini killed off the penalty, earning a standing ovation from the crowd.

Goaltender Angelo Sakellaropoulos continued to earn his keep between the pipes. The sophomore was 46 seconds from his third shutout of the season Friday night before the Illini relinquished a goal to Iowa State, which had an empty net. The Tinley Park, Ill., native stopped 94 percent of the Cyclones’ shots and was also able to get his first point of the season 3:05 into the first period of Saturday’s game. Sakellaropoulos stopped an Iowa State dump and then fired a lengthy pass to Daniel Cohen, who dodged two Iowa State defensemen before beating Cyclone goaltender Scott Ismond to give the Illini a 1-0 lead.

Despite the defensive improvement, the woes for Illinois around its opponent’s crease continued. Cassel said scoring so few goals is cause for concern.

“It’s just really disappointing that we can’t score more than three goals in a weekend at home,” Cassel said. “We’re going to continue working on finishing in tight. Our power play has to get better, and it will.”

Freshman Austin Bostock returned to the lineup Friday after missing the previous three games with a hand injury. He was a major factor in Chris Peter’s powerplay goal on Friday night, tipping the puck in from the slot, despite not getting credit for it.

Unfortunately for Illinois, as one centerman returned Friday, another was unable to play Saturday. Captain Tim Gilbert, who scored the eventual game-winning goal in Friday night’s contest, was unable to participate Saturday due to an injury sustained blocking a shot the previous evening. There is no timetable on his return yet.

“Timmy’s a huge part of not only my line, but the whole team,” linemate Sam Fatigato said. “He’s our captain and our leader out there. He works harder than anyone on the team, and having him out of the lineup, his bench presence and locker room presence really lowered the energy.”

The split personality for the Illini will have to subside if they plan on taking points away from Indiana on the road next weekend.

Cassel believes that has to do with giving a full 60-minute effort.

“We’re just not good enough to take periods and shifts off,” Cassel said. “We’re not going to beat very many teams like that.”