Keys to beating Robert Morris for Illinois hockey

By Sean Neumann

No. 15 Illinois (11-9-1) will travel to Bensenville, Ill., this weekend to take on No. 2 Robert Morris (15-2-1) in a CSCHL conference matchup.

The Illini are looking to carry the momentum from their last weekend of action when they knocked off No. 5 Oklahoma and No. 11 Central Oklahoma. Robert Morris is dangerous on its home ice, posting a 9-0 home record so far this season. Illinois will look to focus on these keys to the game in order to escape The Edge Ice Arena with the upset against the No. 2 ranked team in the nation.

Getting an early lead

Scoring the first goal in each game against Robert Morris is key to the Illini escaping with a pair of victories.

Illinois has an 8-1 record when scoring the first goal, and is just 1-9 when allowing opponents to score first.

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Senior goaltender Nick Clarke said he feels less pressure when the Illini are able to score the first goal, something the Illini struggled with early on in the season.

When Illinois is playing with the lead, senior winger Eddie Quagliata said the team’s skill also starts to show more on the ice.

“You’re more confident with yourself,” Quagliata said. “You know that you have some breathing room to try to get a little creative and make some plays, compared to when you’re playing down and you’re pressing a little bit too much sometimes and you’re trying too hard. That complicates the game a little bit and sometimes leads to you not playing too well.”

Quagliata said when the Illini are able to take a lead into an intermission, it allows for the team’s momentum to carry over into the beginning of the next period.

And the momentum has been carrying over for the Illini. In the past five games, Illinois has scored first four times and each game resulted in an Illini victory.

Finding ways to score without John Olen

Illinois will be without its leading scorer, John Olen this weekend while he travels to Italy to join Team USA in the World University Games.

Olen leads the team in points (21) and has scored 12 goals this season, twice as many as any other player on the Illini roster.

Head coach Nick Fabbrini said he will be looking for everyone on the Illini bench to produce against Robert Morris, knowing the team will be without one of its biggest point contributors.

“Obviously losing your best player, even to go play for Team USA, isn’t something we necessarily want to do at this time,” Fabbrini said. “All 12 or 13 forwards that dress are going to have to understand that somebody else is going to have to step up and contribute.”

Last weekend, the Illini began getting that goal scoring support from other players on the roster. Junior winger Jacob Matysiak scored his first two goals of the season, while the leadership of team captain Austin Bostock showed in his two goals and two assists in the team’s 5-2 win over Central Oklahoma.

“We definitely have enough offense to sustain the loss of Johnny,” Fabbrini said. “It’s just going to be a matter of guys stepping up and getting it done.”

Olen’s absence will be balanced out, since Robert Morris will be without their assistant captain Gehrett Sargis. The former ACHA Rookie of the Year finalist will be joining Olen in Italy to play for Team USA. Sargis, one of the nation’s leading scorers, is tied for eighth place in the ACHA point race with 32 points this season (13 goals, 19 assists).

Reducing penalty minutes

Without Olen, the Illini penalty kill may not have to see as much ice time as usual.

Olen already has 53 penalty minutes this season, 16 more than any other player on the team, and Illinois’ penalty kill has haunted the team all season.

Penalties cost the Illini in their 7-2 loss to No. 5 Oklahoma, when the team allowed the Sooners to score five power play goals. Illinois gave Oklahoma seven power play opportunities, while racking up 18 penalty minutes – nearly an entire period of play.

Excluding the loss to Oklahoma, the Illini have allowed an average of 1.25 goals per game on an average of just 10.5 penalty minutes per game. But spending more minutes shorthanded due to penalties — such as the 18 power play minutes against Oklahoma — the Illini allow their opponents to score more goals.

“It’s something we’re going to keep stressing,” Fabbrini said. “As long as we can take care of our end, we’re going to continue to be in games and have chances to win the game offensively.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @Neumannthehuman.