Illini hockey may miss national tournament

By Sean Neumann

Time is quickly running out for the Illini hockey team.

Ranked No. 19 in the nation, Illinois (17-16-1) will still miss the ACHA national tournament if it fails to advance in the rankings. The national tournament — which will be held at the University of Delaware this season — consists of a 20-team field. Unfortunately for the Illini, they would be pushed out by teams receiving autobids for winning their regular season conference championship.

There are six conferences in the ACHA, which means there will be seven teams that earn automatic births into the tournament, since No. 8 Delaware also receives an autobid for hosting the tournament. 

No. 20 Buffalo (21-7-2), No. 22 Syracuse (17-5-1) and No. 24 Niagara (15-8-1) are fighting for the top spot in the Northeastern Collegiate Hockey League, while No. 23 West Virginia has captured the College Hockey Mid-America bid — both automatic bids helping push the Illini out of a playoff spot.

“I understand it,” Illini head coach Nick Fabbrini said about the autobids making the tournament. “Obviously, I’m not happy with where we’re at. A lot of that is kind of what we’ve done to ourselves.”

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Fabbrini was speaking in reference to the team’s 1-7 run in October, which saw the Illini lose six games by three or more goals.

Last weekend’s pair of losses to No. 9 Iowa State made it even tougher for Illinois to scratch its way higher up the national polls. With Illinois most likely dropping in the ACHA polls after the sweep, the team is left with only one more weekend to pad its resume before the national tournament field is announced on Feb. 17. 

This season also marks the first year the ACHA will use computer rankings to decide the tournament field, leaving the Illini’s playoff fate solely in the hands of their statistical performance this weekend against an unranked Indiana team that sits at the bottom of the CSCHL conference standings.

Fabbrini said there’s added pressure for this weekend’s series against Indiana but believes the team has responded well to similar situations in the second half of the season, defeating both No. 5 Ohio and No. 10 Minot State in recent weeks.

“Our season’s been on the line for a couple of weeks here, so it’s not a new feeling for us,” Fabbrini said. “Nothing’s really changed. It’s just a matter of if it’s going to be enough if we win both games this weekend.”

Illinois has won the ACHA national title twice in the past 10 years (2005, 2008) and is currently the defending regular season CSCHL conference champions. The team has only missed the tournament once in its past 16 seasons (2011), but with only two games left before the final national rankings of the season are released, its becoming more likely that the Illini will experience the rarity of ending its season empty-handed. 

Not knowing whether the team will make the national tournament weighs most on the minds of Illinois’ seniors, though, who run the risk of leaving the program without having the chance to capture the school’s third national title.

“It’s just real disappointing,” senior goaltender Nick Clarke said. “It’s this point of the season, and you don’t know what’s in store as far as making the tournament or not.”

Senior defenseman Mike Evans added that the pressure built up for this weekend’s series against Indiana is on the mind of the entire Illini roster, as it will play a large role in determining the team’s fate.

“I think it’s more motivation than anything,” Evans said. “We’re going to step up to the task and deliver a nice … you know, I don’t know how to say it really. We’re going to try to beat Indiana the best that we can.”

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