Illinois hockey team gears up for huge weekend against Ohio

By Joey Figueroa

The No. 20 Illinois hockey team is coming off a relatively easy weekend at home and will bring its short two-game winning streak to No. 4 Ohio this weekend.

This will be the Illini’s second series with the Bobcats this season. Their last was split, as Illinois bounced back from an embarrassing 8-1 defeat to grab an emotional 5-2 victory at home.

Head coach Nick Fabbrini said the team would be looking at the tape from the previous two games against Ohio and placing equal importance on the loss and the win.

“You don’t really learn from just watching yourself do good things, but it’s also good to have confidence and realize what worked for us last time and the way we need to play to be successful this time,” Fabbrini said. “The bad things are good because it makes you a better player. No one likes seeing themselves make mistakes on camera and do things that they’re not supposed to do, but that’s the way that you learn and get better. So there’s definitely benefits to both.”

The main adjustment the Illini will have to make the second time around against the Bobcats is playing away from home. While Illinois’ Big Pond is larger than regulation rinks, Ohio’s rink, also known as the Bird, is smaller than regulation, making it a drastic transition for the Illini.

“This is a pretty tough place to play,” senior captain Austin Bostock said. “You can almost fit two of their ice rinks in ours, so it’s a very different rink to play at. I think that it’s just going to be a faster pace of game.”

The Illini simulated Ohio’s small rink during practice by placing pads around their rink to make it more narrow and to shorten the boards.

“It’s definitely not a perfect science, but I think it will help us be prepared,” Fabbrini said. “A lot of the guys who have played at Ohio said some of the drills we’ve done out there for the past two days have done a nice job of simulating what it’s like to play at Ohio. We’re trying to be as prepared as we can to make plays in tighter, smaller areas under a lot more pressure.”

With less room to navigate, the physicality is bound to be high. Bostock has deemed the Bobcats to be the Illini’s biggest rival, and when asked if he expects the animosity between the two teams to be even higher than when they first played, he responded quickly and surely.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I hate playing against them just because they’re always a good team and you always know you’re going to get hit every single time; it’s not even a question. It’s the biggest game of the season thus far for sure.”

The Bobcats are the first challenge in a three-week stretch of top-10 opponents for the Illini, which makes their final run at a spot in the ACHA National Tournament in March even tougher.

“We’ve got eight games left before rankings come out, and right now, we’re right on the cusp of the (national) tournament,” Fabbrini said. “I think that it’s very important for us to make the most of the next three weekends, especially since we have three top-10 teams on our schedule. We have everything there in front of us to get in the tournament, we just need to step up and win some games.”

Fabbini wants the Illini to dedicate all of their focus to not only every game, but to every period. Point differential is another factor in the national ranking system, so even in losses, full effort in every period of every game is important for Illinois.

“We’re approaching every period like it’s a 20-minute game, and we want to win each one for the next eight weeks,” Fabbrini said. “It’s definitely not going to be easy, but we’re more than capable of doing it.”

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