Illinois hockey gears up for national tournament

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By Joey Figueroa

The games the Illinois hockey team have been anticipating all year are finally here.

The No. 18 Illini (21-17-2) will match up against the No. 15 Arizona Wildcats (17-21-0) in the first round of the ACHA national tournament in Newark, Del.

Illinois hasn’t played Arizona this season, which has head coach Nick Fabbrini relying on conversations with other coaches, game tape and experience from past seasons to prepare for the Wildcats.

“They’re a good team,” Fabbrini said. “They’ve beaten some really good teams this year. We need to be prepared and I expect it to be a tough game for us.”

According to the ACHA computer polls, Arizona had the toughest schedule in the ACHA, which explains why they are ranked higher than Illinois despite having a worse record. The Wildcats have six victories over top-10 teams, including a recent win over No. 1 Arizona State, which has lost just twice all season.

This will be the Wildcats’ first national tournament appearance since 2006, and Fabbrini expects them to come out with a lot of energy. Senior forward Eddie Quagliata still thinks the Illini have more to play for, though.

“I think we have a little bit more fuel just because no one thinks we’re going to win this game,” Quagliata said. “I think that we have a little bit more motivation than them, being the underdog, and we’re going to try to show everyone that that’s a joke.”

Athletes often say they try to play every game like it’s their last, and for the six Illinois seniors, that may literally be the case against Arizona. Senior goaltender Nick Clarke said he will try to use that to his advantage.

“This could very well be the last competitive hockey game I ever play,” Clarke said. “I’m definitely going to use that for motivation and I’m going to try not to think about it too much, but it’s definitely going to be in the back of my mind.”

If the Illini can extend their season with a win over the Wildcats on Thursday, they will square off against No. 2 Oklahoma (24-5-2) on Friday. Illinois has recent experience and success against Oklahoma, splitting a weekend series on the Sooners’ home ice in November. Oklahoma also handed Arizona State one of its two defeats, so the Illini will not take them lightly.

“They’re one of the best teams,” Fabbrini said. “Even when we played them in November, I thought they were one of the two or three best teams in the country. We’re still reasonably confident playing them. We’ve beaten them already at home, so we’re definitely not intimidated by them, but we’re definitely going to respect them.”

Delaware’s hockey arena has an Olympic-sized ice rink, which is 210 feet long and 98 feet wide, making it a bit smaller than the Big Pond’s ice but larger than the majority of the other teams’ rinks. The Illini will look to take advantage of their comfort level on a large sheet of ice, but Fabbrini doesn’t want them to rely on that advantage.

“Every team we play is going be able to adjust,” he said. “They’re all good teams and they all have good coaches, so we can’t expect that to be an edge for us.”

If Illinois can get past Arizona and Oklahoma, it will face the winner between two CSCHL foes, No. 7 Ohio (26-7-3) and No. 10 Iowa State (29-9-5), in the quarterfinals Sunday. Illinois may be better served if Ohio advances, since the team was able to win two out of the four games against the Bobcats during the regular season, compared to losing all four meetings with Iowa State.

The Illini think anything can happen, though.

“Being in the national tournament, I think everyone’s going to bring it, all 20 guys playing,” Quagliata said. “I expect us to come hard and I think we should get on a little streak here.”

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