Illini hockey cruises to two easy wins

By Sean Neumann

The Illini hockey team took advantage of two easy opponents for a pair of routine victories before they head into three weeks of tougher matchups.

No. 20 Illinois (15-13-1) defeated the Chicago Jr. Bulldogs 6-1 on Friday night and continued that momentum Saturday night with a 10-2 win over Eastern Illinois.

Illinois was scheduled to play a weekend series against DePaul, but after the Blue Demons canceled, the Illini found two new opponents in Eastern Illinois and the Chicago Jr. Bulldogs — a junior-level hockey team of which Illini junior Jacob Matysiak was the captain in the 2010-11 season.

“We could’ve practiced this weekend or something, but it’s always good to have some game situations against opponents,” defenseman Cody von Rueden said. “At the bottom line, it’s always fun to play games. Especially at home.”

The Bulldogs put a scare into Illinois when they scored three minutes into the first period after a slow start from the Illini, but six unanswered Illini goals in the first and second periods lifted them over their junior-level opponent.

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Junior Jon Langan scored twice, while senior John Scully and sophomore Matt Johnson each scored one apiece. Matt Welch added a goal of his own, in addition to a skillful assist to senior Mike Evans when he skated the puck through the slot, patiently passed up an opportunity for a shot through traffic and passed back to a trailing Evans for an easy goal.

But it was the play of freshman Zach Danna that kept the Illini out front. Danna made 29 saves, including an impressive second period save on a one-timer that he stopped with the knob of his stick when the Illini led 3-1, not just saving the Illini from giving up another goal but also from giving up a huge momentum swing in the Bulldogs’ favor.

Friday night’s win was Danna’s first career start at the collegiate level, having played just one period prior. In total, Danna has a 0.972 save percentage, having given up just one goal on 36 shots. After the 6-1 win, Danna said he feels more comfortable between the pipes as head coach Nick Fabbrini continues to give him more ice-time.

“Zach had to make a lot more tough saves than I was hoping he had to make,” Fabbrini said. “He played great. They had some really good chances, and if Zach didn’t play as well as he did, they definitely would’ve been in the game.”

Illinois dominated Eastern from the puck-drop Saturday night, holding the puck in the Panthers’ zone for the majority of the game. The constant Illini pressure led to a tired Panthers defense whose game plan quickly became dumping the puck for icing with little offensive threat on the transition, producing just 16 shots throughout the game.

The Illini held a 9-0 advantage over the Panthers after just two periods before going on to win 10-2 with three goals from senior John Scully and two from senior Eddie Quagliata.

Jacob Matysiak, Jonathan Gauger, Matt Welch, Zach Morrison and Josh Baker all added individual goals, while freshman Cody von Rueden added three assists Saturday night for five total on the weekend.

Illinois scored 16 times on 82 shots throughout the weekend. Fabbrini said he was happy with the Illini’s ability convert scoring chances into goals this weekend, something Illini forwards have struggled with all season but must be able to do against three top-10 opponents in the coming weeks.

“There are no easy wins in hockey,” von Rueden said after Saturday’s win. “This weekend was kind of a tune-up to work on some stuff that we need to work on for the big games coming up. We did our job and that’s all you can ask for, but now we’ve got to get ready for Ohio next week.”

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