Barrera leads hockey to sweep despite illness

On an average game night, Chris Peter cooks dinner for his roommate and fellow Illinois hockey teammate Scott Barrera. But last Friday was no average game night.

Not only were the Illini about to open a series against No. 9 Oklahoma that would likely dictate whether the team received a bid for the ACHA National Tournament, but Barrera and Peter came down with the flu, and both opted to skip Peter’s usual pregame meal.

Barrera, who usually leaves his apartment early to be the first one in the locker room taping his stick, decided to sleep throughout the day to salvage all the energy he could for the Sooners. When Barrera finally arrived at the arena, he walked into a quiet locker room. The stereo, which usually blasts pregame pump-up tunes, was off. The team was focused.

Head coach Chad Cassel approached Barrera before the game and asked the sophomore forward if he felt well enough to play. There was no doubt in Barrera’s mind that he was playing — the weekend was too important.

“I told him before Friday night’s game, and it’s funny, over the course of Illini hockey history, a lot of guys have had their best games when they weren’t feeling well,” Cassel said.

History repeated itself Friday. Despite the lingering ailment, Barrera registered the first hat trick of his Illinois hockey career in a 6-2 Illini victory.

“I really simplified my game,” Barrera said. “I didn’t work as hard as usually expected, and I think that really helped me because I was more focused on being in the right spots as to just working.”

“He came to me Saturday night and he said, ‘I still don’t feel very well,’” Cassel said. “I said, ‘Great, that’s what I was hoping for: We need another big game out of you tonight.’”

Barrera finished the Oklahoma series with four of the Illini’s nine goals in a weekend where every goal mattered. Illinois, which entered the series at No. 14 in the coaches poll, needed to make a statement against the Sooners to move into the top 12 and qualify for nationals. The Illini went on to win the second game, 3-2.

“Those were two games that we definitely needed,” Cassel said. “I knew we were going to need somebody to step up and Scott and that whole line were good all weekend.”

Barrera is a pure scorer. He is tied for third on the team goals with 15, and he leads all new players with 20 points.

Even with all Barrera’s offensive success, he acknowledges that he still has plenty of work to do on the other end of the ice.

“I need to improve on my defensive game,” Barrera said. “I’m always offensive-minded. I usually don’t pay as much attention in the D-zone and that’s what Chad always gets on me about and I’m hoping to improve on.”

Cassel entered the season with lofty expectations for Barrera, 21, who had deep experience in junior leagues. He was one of the original 16 new players Cassel recruited to help the Illini in a year of heavy turnover.

“Our expectations were high for him this year,” Cassel said. “We expected him to step in and be a big contributor, and that’s what we’ve needed. He’s gotten stronger and stronger as the year has gone on. Obviously he had a big weekend and he’s battling through injury right now … He came up big.”

Two weekends ago, Barrera returned for Illinois’ road series against Kent State after missing three games with a pulled groin. Right as Barrera started to get healthy, another offensive weapon, sophomore forward Brandon Targett, broke his finger and was lost for the season. Barrera slid into Targett’s line, and Cassel said the squad performed exceptionally against Oklahoma.

“It’s one guy comes out and another guy comes in to fill that role,” junior forward Andrew Cardona said. “That’s kind of what’s great about our team, and I think this is a great example of how deep we are.”