Illinois hockey team travels to Oklahoma

By Joey Figueroa

It’s going to be an interesting weekend for the Illinois hockey team. The Illini will make the 700-mile trip to Oklahoma for a three-game weekend against the No. 6 Oklahoma and the No. 5 Central Oklahoma.

This will be the first and only time the No. 17 Illini will play three games in one weekend this season. It will be an adjustment, but senior goaltender Nick Clarke doesn’t think fatigue will be an issue.

“I think we’ll be well rested,” Clarke said. “We’ll have a good week of practice and keep our legs under us. One extra game shouldn’t hurt us too bad.”

Illinois will face Oklahoma on Friday night and Saturday afternoon, followed by Central Oklahoma on Sunday. The two schools are only about 20 miles apart, so the team won’t have to worry about traveling more or even changing hotels.

“It’ll be something for us to adjust to,” head coach Nick Fabbrini said. “I think that it’s a little different from what we’ve done to this point, but I really think we’re capable of switching gears.”

Another adjustment the Illini will have to make is playing on smaller rinks than what they’re used to at the Big Pond. Illinois’ rink is actually larger than regulation size, so going on the road may be a bit tougher for the Illini than for most teams.

The Illini dealt with Indiana’s smaller rink just fine last weekend, however, allowing only two goals in two games, and most of the team grew up playing on rinks smaller than the Big Pond.

“I wouldn’t say it’s that big of an adjustment,” Clarke said. “But things definitely happen a lot faster on a smaller rink, so you have to react faster and there’s less room to makes plays.”

Besides the packed schedule and smaller rinks, the Illini will face the challenge of playing two top-10 teams in one weekend. Oklahoma has lost just once all season, but Fabbrini still has faith his team can go in and steal a couple of games on the road.

“I know Oklahoma is always very talented, and this year’s no different,” Fabbrini said. “We’ve been stressing our mental preparation, and if it can be where it needs to be I expect us to do well this weekend.”

Oklahoma boasts two of the top 15 goal scorers in the ACHA, so defense will be a large focus for Illinois. The Illini come into this weekend having allowed just four goals in their last three games.

“We just need to bear down and play tough D,” junior defenseman Kyle Clark said. “They’re going to be a good team, they’ve been good every year. Going out there blocking shots, playing the body and playing physical will be key.”

The Illini have their hands full on defense Sunday when they face Central Oklahoma, who have the top goal scorer in the nation in sophomore forward Kyle Spraggs. Fabbrini admitted he didn’t know as much about the Bronchos and that the Illini would watch game tape on them to prepare.

“From some of the coaches that I’ve talked to that have played (Central Oklahoma), they’ve added some really high-end talent and their power play is very, very good,” Fabbrini said.

Fabbrini said the key for this weekend is to remain disciplined and focused mentally. He was disappointed in the team’s offensive output against Indiana and expects more on that end of the ice this weekend.

“We need to execute,” Fabbrini said. “We can work on it all we want, but no matter what, you can’t really simulate a game condition in practice. So we’ll try to apply the things we work on in practice, but it’s going to come down to just getting it done.”

Joey can be reached at [email protected] and @joeyfigueroa3.