Illini hockey plays waiting game after making case for tournament bid

Just three years removed from a perfect 38-0 season that included titles in the CSCHL and ACHA, the No. 14 Illinois hockey team finds itself on the bubble of the ACHA national tournament.

A 10-game stretch from November until mid-January saw the Illini go 2-8, which could prove costly when the final rankings come out Friday.

With that said, Illinois is riding a seven-game winning streak into the final voting period, and the Illini have regained some of the swagger that seemed to disappear during losses to Ohio, Iowa State, Lindenwood and Robert Morris. With their backs to the wall, the Orange and Blue were able to gain a sweep over No. 9 Oklahoma last weekend. Those two wins could help sway voters. The team and coaching staff is mindful of their early season losses but feel they deserve to be battling for a national title.

“We’ve done all we can do at this point,” head coach Chad Cassel said. “We’re going to have see what happens with the rankings this weekend.”

Despite having an extended period of time in which wins were scarce, Illinois started the second semester with a signature win on the road against No. 1 Lindenwood. Illinois is one of two teams to defeat the Lions this year; the other team to beat Lindenwood is No. 2 Davenport. Cassel feels that the wins over Lindenwood and Oklahoma, combined with the current winning streak, should sway voters. Given that voting isn’t an exact science, though, the waiting game will weigh heavily on his mind this week.

“Honestly, I’ve never been able to figure out what exactly goes through coaches’ minds when they vote,” Cassel said. “We’re one of two teams to beat Lindenwood, we just swept Oklahoma and we’ve beaten a couple of tournaments teams. You just never know.”

The players have felt the bulk of the pressure over the last few weeks as well, knowing a loss would most likely end their season earlier than they would like. The winning streak has instilled confidence in a team that had struggled offensively for much of the season.

Sophomore Scott Barrera lit the lamp four times over the weekend and he also feels his squad has earned a bid to Delaware.

“I feel pretty good about where we’re at,” Barrera said. “I feel like we made a statement against Oklahoma, and you know coaches talk (to one another), and whatever their votes are, I think they’ll be in our favor.”

Bravado aside, a case can be made for Illinois to get into the tournament. A few signature wins and a winning streak that extends across four weeks should help to overshadow losses to teams headed to the tournament. Senior defenseman Joe Cardona, who just returned from a back injury, has plenty of confidence that voters will favor the Illini.

“I think we have a good shot,” Cardona said. “We beat Lindenwood, we beat Oklahoma, that should put us right in there. I don’t see why we wouldn’t make it.”