Illini hockey looks to earn spot in tournament

By Sean Neumann

The Illinois hockey team is looking for a pair of wins against CSCHL conference rival Iowa State this weekend.

No. 19 Illinois (17-14-2) is on the cusp of an ACHA national tournament birth but will need to put on a strong showing this weekend to solidify a spot against No. 10 Iowa State — a team who swept the Illini earlier this season.

Illinois has only missed the tournament once in the past 16 years (2010-11), when the team finished the season 21-10-1. The Illini seniors, who were a part of the 2011 team, are battling the possibility of a similar fate by stressing the confidence they have in making a late-season run.

“It’s win or go home,” senior forward Matt Welch said. “We have confidence that we’re going to go all the way. If not, there’s no reason for us to even play.”

Illinois has outscored opponents 28-23 since the semester break, pulling out big wins against No. 7 Minot State — the defending national champions — and No. 8 Ohio.

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“When we’re scoring a goal per game, you don’t leave yourself a whole lot of margin for error,” head coach Nick Fabbrini said. “I think we’re realizing now, to score goals in this league, you’ve got to go to the front of the net and take a hit to make a play. You’re not going to score from the perimeter on good teams and good goalies.”

Iowa State goaltender Matt Cooper will be looking to shut down the budding Illini offense this weekend, posting a .956 save percentage with a 16-1-1 record for the Cyclones so far this season.

After a tough stretch early on in the year, when the Illini went just 1-7 throughout October, the team has started changing the locker room environment before games, even turning off the loud music typically heard blasting from hockey dressing rooms.

“We were (playing music) all year, and obviously it wasn’t working early,” senior goaltender Nick Clarke said. “It’s a lot more quiet, and guys can get a lot more mentally prepared. We’ve been doing that the past couple weeks, and it’s been working for us.”

The Illini have won six of their last 10 games, nearly winning a seventh last weekend in a shootout against No. 7 Minot State in what Fabbrini called a “moral victory.”

Fabbrini believes this weekend’s series against No. 10 Iowa State will go a long way toward determining whether the Illini will make the national tournament.

“It’s a tough place to play, and it’s always been a tough place for us to go in and win games,” Fabbrini said. “We’re more than capable of going there and getting two games. It’s just a matter of bringing the right effort and right attitude.”

But while teetering on the edge of the rankings, the Illini have been playing the best hockey they have all season with four wins over top-10 opponents since November. Fabbrini said he isn’t concerned about Illinois getting into the national tournament, even with just four ACHA games left to play.

“I think we’ve put ourselves in a good position to go to Iowa State and basically get into the tournament,” Fabbrini said. “We just need to keep winning games, and the rest will take care of itself.”

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