Division II call-up Carey leads Illini hockey to 4-3 victory

There was an elephant in the Illinois net Saturday night.

After allowing five goals Friday night, including three in the first period, Derek Nick — the Illini’s projected starting goaltender while Angelo Sakellaropoulos continues to recover from an aggravated MCL — was benched Saturday in favor of Illinois club Division II call-up Brett Carey. Prior to the game, assistant coach Darin Trulock said Carey was “the best healthy goaltender on campus.” Carey played ahead of Nick and current third-stringer Lucas Lambert. With no varsity experience, Carey led the No. 10 Illini (11-2-1) to a 4-3 victory against No. 12 Robert Morris on Saturday night.

“He played outstanding,” Illini head coach Chad Cassel said of Carey. “He had some huge saves there late in the third for us to hang on, but he was solid all night.”

Cassel told Carey he’d be starting on Saturday immediately after the Illini’s 6-1 loss Friday at the hand of the Eagles.

“I was pretty nervous but pretty excited,” Carey said. “Everyone was really supportive which was really nice. It really helped with the transition.”

Carey only saw 16 shots through the first two periods but made the necessary saves, Cassel said. In the third period, the Eagles outshot the Illini 12-3, testing the inexperienced goalie.

“I felt really good; they were putting a lot of pressure on,” Carey said. “It was nice to make the saves.”

With under one minute remaining in the third period and the Illini up one goal, Robert Morris challenged Carey with two good shots from in tight around the crease. Carey made a diving save, preserving the Illini’s lead.

“As a coach all you want out of your goaltender is to make the saves you’re supposed to make and he did that all night,” Cassel said.

Friday was the second game in a row where Nick allowed three goals in the first period. The coaching staff still expressed confidence in Nick, but Cassel said he needs to get himself in a more confident mindset.

“It is definitely mental because he’s a good goalie,” Cassel said. “He struggled against Indiana in his last start and then he obviously struggled again last night. It’s all mental because he has the physical ability to do it, he’s just in a not there mentally right now.”

Cassel said he was “embarrassed” after Friday night’s loss and immediately talked to Division II coach Mark Rogers about calling up Carey.

“With Derek struggling (Friday) night obviously we had to do something,” Cassel said. “(Carey) was excited to play (Saturday night) and obviously a little nervous, but you couldn’t tell. He played well all night.”

In an attempt to jumpstart his offense, Cassel toggled with all four of his lines during Saturday night’s game. The change benefited forward Scott Barrera as he scored both the Illini’s second period goals after teaming up with freshmen Austin Bostock and John Scully.

“Before the game coach kind of pulled me aside and said I had been playing well, so he pulled me down a couple of lines to light a fire and get going,” Barrera said. “I feel like we’re such a tight-knit group that whoever he puts us with, we play well together.”

Next week, Illinois will play its division rival, No. 1 Lindenwood at home, and Cassel will have to make some tough decisions if Sakellaropoulos still isn’t healthy enough to play.

“It’s very much up in the air right now because there’s a lot of factors,” Cassel said. “Angelo obviously had been playing really well prior to getting injured … It’s a tough injury to come back from if you’re a goaltender. We’ll see how practice goes this week and we’ll make decisions from there.”