Wins against top-10 teams give Illini hockey confidence

By Joey Figueroa

The Illinois hockey team proved it belongs among the top tier of the ACHA by upsetting two top-10 teams, in Oklahoma and Central Oklahoma, and gained considerable confidence and momentum in the process.

No. 15 Illini performed well in many areas, but perhaps the most important was scoring first in all three games over the weekend, which is something they haven’t been able to do very often this season.

“It’s honestly very important,” senior forward Eddie Quagliata said of scoring first. “I love playing ahead. It’s just better because you’re more confident with yourself and you know that you have some breathing room to try to get a little creative and make some plays.”

Scoring first has been a focus all year for the Illini. Head coach Nick Fabbrini said that the first goal scored is a momentum goal, along with goals scored in the first and last few minutes of a period and the first couple of minutes after a goal.

A large factor in Illinois’ loss in their second game against Oklahoma was giving up these momentum goals.

“We gave up two goals in the last 90 seconds of the first period and two goals in the last 70 seconds of the second period,” Fabbrini said. “So if you cut out those three minutes of hockey there, it’s a completely different game. So that’s something we need to make sure we do a better job of, finishing periods strong.”

Playing well in front on the defensive end has been a large focus of late for the Illini, but executing well on offense and scoring first has just as big of an impact on the goaltending.

“It’s a huge help,” senior goalie Nick Clarke said. “Right when you get that first goal, it’s a whole other level of confidence you’re playing with. If I maybe let one in, I know that my team’s got my back and I know they’re going to score some goals, too.”

After scoring just three goals in two games the previous weekend against Indiana, the Illini offense took a step forward against Oklahoma and Central Oklahoma, netting nine goals in three games. More importantly, the goal scoring has been a team effort, with five different players scoring those nine goals.

Sophomore forward John Olen was responsible for three of the goals and will be leaving for Italy to play for Team USA this weekend. Fabbrini said he would rather not lose his top scorer, but expects the entire team to accept the challenge of filling his shoes.

“It’s going be everybody,” Fabbrini said. “All 12 to 14 forwards that dress up are going to have to understand that somebody is going to have to step up and contribute. We have enough offense to sustain the loss of (Olen), definitely. It’s just going to be a matter of guys stepping up and getting it done.”

The Illini will face another tough test this weekend against No. 2 Robert Morris, but after their successful trip to Oklahoma, intimidation will not be a factor.

“Those kind of things don’t intimidate me personally, and I don’t think they intimidate our team,” Quagliata said. “I think it helps the team focus more and play harder. It’s always fun to take down a team that’s ranked very high, so we’re looking to take two from them at their place this weekend.”

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