Illinois hockey splits weekend against defending national champions

By Joey Figueroa

Facing the defending national champions, No. 7 Minot State, the No. 20 Illinois hockey team got their best win of the season before suffering their most heart-wrenching loss.

The intense weekend of hockey ended in a 4-3 shootout loss for the Illini after Illinois got an emotional 2-0 shutout victory on Friday.

“We definitely left it all out there,” head coach Nick Fabbrini said after Saturday’s tough loss. “I’m not a big fan of moral victories, but I thought this was a big weekend for us going forward.”

The Illini used their speed to their advantage and exploited the Beavers’ inexperience with playing on a larger rink to get the 2-0 win Friday, but Minot State seemed to adjust well for Saturday.

Minot State scored the first goal just five minutes into Saturday’s opening period, but Illinois responded with two straight goals from sophomore forward John Olen and junior forward Kyle Varzino. Minot State closed the eventful first period with another goal to tie the game 2-2.

Five minutes into the second period, the Illini broke the tie with a goal from senior forward Matt Welch, but just 30 seconds later, the Beavers answered back to tie the game again.

Both goaltenders tightened up and played great for the rest of the game, and not even an extra overtime period could end the stalemate, so it came down to a shootout.

After five straight fantastic stops by senior goalie Nick Clarke, Minot State junior captain Michael Jordan finally got a puck into the back of the net. None of the six Illini attempts were successful, and the game ended with a 4-3 victory for the Beavers.

“Close ones like that are always really tough,” senior forward Eddie Quagliata said. “Just from my aspect with the shootout, when we’re shooting second and have a chance to win the game and it didn’t go through for us, it stings a little more.”

Even though Illinois couldn’t pull out a weekend sweep, Fabbrini thought the team played well all weekend and thinks the Illini are peaking at the right time.

“I told them it’s nothing to hang our heads about,” he said. “Obviously nobody’s happy with the result, but the effort and process was where it needed to be. We’ve played four great games in a row.”

The Big Pond was rocking as huge crowds came to support the Illini during alumni weekend. The electric atmosphere carried the Illini through two hard-fought games and even left senior captain Austin Bostock speechless after Friday night’s 2-0 victory.

“We weren’t expecting the support from the student body and community like that, and it was amazing,” Bostock said. “It was one of the biggest crowds this year and they were loud, and they were chanting. It was a fun game to be a part of, I’ll tell you that much.”

The Illini matched the crowd’s energy from the initial puck drop to the game-ending buzzer in Friday night’s victory. Minot State had the size advantage, with 15 players on the roster at least 6 feet tall, but Illinois used its speed to keep the puck in their offensive zone for the majority of the first period and delivered plenty of big hits.

Clarke was in top form and made some huge saves that ignited the fans and his teammates in the second period, as the Illini were the first to find the back of the net with a goal from freshman defenseman Austin Zima. Olen padded the lead with a short-handed goal just minutes later, and Clarke handled the rest on his way to securing his third shutout of the season.

“The crowd getting into it was what pumped me up the most,” Clarke said after Friday’s win. “The guys in front of me played great tonight and they made it easy on me. Getting the shutout was nice, but in the end, we’re just trying to get the ‘W’ every night.”

The Illini outshot the Beavers 42 to 24 on Friday night, and everything seemed to be going right for Illinois as it won a large percentage of faceoffs and got to the majority of the loose pucks. Fabbrini attributed that to the Illini’s speed.

“That’s the way you neutralize size, with speed,” he said. “(Minot State is) a lot bigger than we are, but we skate better than they do, in my opinion. When we’re skating and moving our feet consistently and making a commitment to playing that way, we’re going to create a lot of chances offensively. Size isn’t that much of a factor for us.”

This was the first time Minot State visited the Big Pond since 2003, so no one on their roster had any experience playing in such a large rink and Illinois exploited that.

“I think it’s hard for any team, especially a team that’s never played here before to adjust to this,” Bostock said. “They watched a little bit of our practice on Thursday and when they walked in, the looks on their faces were just priceless.”

Illinois won’t have the luxury of playing at the Big Pond next weekend as they’ll travel to Iowa State for their third straight matchup against a top-10 team. The team is looking at every game as a playoff game from here on, and it needs every win it can get in order to make the ACHA national tournament.

“Look for us to get better,” Bostock said. “That’s the only way you can improve. Look in the mirror after 60 minutes, come down here, look left and right and make sure you can say to your brother that you played as hard as you could for him. We can’t lose. It’s playoff hockey.”

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