Illini hockey opens season with a victory over Northern Illinois

By Daniel Dexter

The Illinois hockey team got its first taste of regular season action this season with a dominant 7-2 win over Northern Illinois on Saturday.

Head coach Nick Fabbrini was disappointed with the lack of energy and the high number of penalties the team committed in the opening period. The team overcame its mistakes in the second, with five unanswered goals to open up the game in the Illini’s favor.

“Our goalie (Zev Grumet-Morris) really kept us in the game the first period,” Fabbrini said. “He made some big saves. Then in the second and third period, we got back to doing what we do well, which is playing with a lot of speed and possession of the puck.”

The team bounced back against the Huskies after losing an exhibition game to the Springfield Jr. Blues, a semi-professional team, on Friday. Fabbrini said the problems that plagued the team in the first period of the Northern Illinois game were what doomed the team against Springfield.

“It was our first game, and we made a lot of mistakes that I think we can chalk up to first game jitters,” Fabbrini said. “Guys were not making confident plays with the puck, and I think they were more worried about making a mistake than making a play.”

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Despite the issues, Fabbrini was impressed with the play from his team in its opening weekend, particularly from forward John Olen and center Josh Belmont.

Olen led the team with three goals on the weekend, and Belmont contributed the first goal of the regular season for the Illini against Northern Illinois while playing at center for the first time in his career.

“This weekend was my first game playing center, and it was somewhat more overwhelming because Springfield is definitely a faster team,” said sophomore Belmont, who switched to the position from right wing. “I really liked playing NIU because it gave me a chance to really focus on my role and figure out some of the little things when it comes to playing center. I feel like I still have a lot to learn, but it is starting to come together for me.”

The team came into the weekend without having any time to practice on its home ice. With the Illinois Ice Arena being repaired, the players have to travel 45 minutes to Danville in order to practice. Fabbrini said the team could return to the Ice Arena as early as Wednesday or Thursday of this week.

Belmont admitted that the traveling has taken its toll on the players, but at the same time, the carpooling between teammates has led to closer bonds on the team.

“We haven’t really skipped a beat,” Belmont said. “It’s just been hard driving 45 minutes each way, especially with balancing school. As far as on ice, it’s been just the same as if we were at home. So in that way, we have been really focused and doing well.”

Daniel can be reached at [email protected] and @ddexter23.