First semester issues still haunting Illini hockey team

By Sean Neumann

The Illinois hockey team is still dealing with the same issues it was in October.

During that month, the Illini went 1-6-1 — the team’s worst stretch of the season. They weren’t capitalizing on scoring chances and allowed too many on defense.

Although the No. 18-ranked Illini have been posting a 6-6-1 record since returning to the ice in January, the team has still faced familiar difficulties against top-25 ACHA teams — losing eight of its last 10 matchups against ACHA teams.

Illinois’ most recent test against a ranked opponent ended in a 10-3 loss to No. 17 Lindenwood on Friday night.

“It wasn’t a lack of effort or a lack of heart or anything like that,” captain Austin Bostock said after the game. “It was just a lack of execution.”

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Illinois had 46 shots on net in the 10-3 loss, but only managed to convert on three. Lindenwood scored 10 goals on just 33 shots, forcing Illini head coach Nick Fabbrini to pull second-team All-American goaltender Nick Clarke from the game.

Fabbrini agreed the blame for the loss was not on effort, despite being outscored 9-2 in the final two periods on the way to a first-round elimination from the CSCHL conference tournament.

“I have a hard time being upset with the way we played,” said Fabbrini, who’s tried to motivate his team to give a full effort for the entire 60 minutes in games all season long.

Illinois has looked better since mid-December, but six of its past eight wins have come against unranked teams. The Illini started the season 6-0 against unranked and non-Division I teams before losing eight of their next 10. Friday night’s 10-3 loss was a poorly timed callback to October, when they were shut out three times and lost six games by multiple-goal margins.

Illinois’ defensive core has been together throughout the entire season, with the duos of Mike Evans and Josh Baker, and Cody von Rueden and Will Nunez in the top four roster slots.

Von Rueden said the long-term defensive pairings have made the defenders play more comfortably as the season has gone on. 

The brightest spot in Illinois’ game all season long is the confidence in each other on the ice, which was the most apparent in its biggest wins, shutting out defending national champion Minot State 2-0 and coming from behind to beat Ohio 4-3 in overtime.

“I would say our top four defenders are one of the top (groups) in the country,” said von Rueden, whose résumé speaks for itself. Von Rueden leads the Illini in assists (26) and sits at second in team points (32) as a freshman defenseman. 

“We do eat up a lot of minutes and coming down the stretch, our whole D-core is going to have to be extremely strong if we want to make a push to win the national championship,” he said.

However, the Illini have won just two of their last 10 games against ACHA top-25 opponents, getting outscored 42-21 in that span.

But with two full weeks of practice to prepare for the ACHA national tournament, von Rueden said the team will head into the tournament by treating it like a new season.

“We just have to fine-tune the little things, like burying the chances when we have them and strong defensive play,” von Rueden said. “Overall, hockey is a game of mistakes. Whatever team capitalizes on more of the mistakes from the other team is going to win the game. It has to be our time to capitalize on the other team’s mistakes more than they capitalize on ours.”

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