Illini of the Week Nov. 19: Joe Olen

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Editor’s note: The Daily Illini sports desk sits down on Sunday nights and decides which Illinois athlete or coach is our Illini of the Week. Athletes and coaches are evaluated by individual performance and contribution to team success.

Two weeks ago in a home game against Aurora University, Illinois goaltender Joe Olen gave up three goals in the first period. Olen was pulled and Aurora cruised to a 7-4 win.

Head coach Nick Fabbrini thought Illinois’ defense had let Olen down.

“We had a lot of breakdowns in front of him, two of the three goals he really had no chance on because of mistakes we made in front of him,” Fabbrini said. “We need to do a better job of bailing him out in the situations where maybe he is playing at the top of his game.”

Rather than blame the defense for the loss, Olen immediately began working on improving his game in practice. He focused on protecting rebounds and getting farther out to challenge opposing shooters.

By the time Iowa State rolled into town, Olen was ready for whatever came at him, including a crucial penalty shot.

Trailing 2-1 midway through the third period Saturday, Iowa State had a chance to tie the game with a penalty shot after an Illinois player fell on the puck in front of the Illini’s net. Trevor Lloyd, Iowa State’s second-leading scorer, stepped up to take the shot.

Unfortunately for Lloyd, Olen lives for pressure situations.

Olen stayed patient and began drifting out of net to meet Lloyd. Lloyd decked right and came left with the shot, but Olen anticipated the play the whole way and stopped the puck with his leg pad.

“I like pressure situations, usually,” Olen said. “They add a little bit more fun to the game for me. It’s fun being in that situation and having a chance to step up for your team.”

Olen’s save gave the Illini momentum to finish strong, secure the 2-1 win over Iowa State and complete the series sweep at the Big Pond over the weekend.

“I feel like it was a game-changing play,” senior defenseman William Nunez said. “Again, he gave us another opportunity to win. 

Olen recorded 61 saves and allowed two goals in two games against Iowa State as the Illini improved to 12-5-0.

Fabbrini said he feels Illinois has been successful because Olen stacks up as one of the best goaltenders in the country.

What stands out about him is “his size and athleticism,” Fabbrini said. “He also anticipates really well, and all of those three things together make him really tough to beat. He competes hard. I know when he’s focused pucks don’t go in on him.”

In 12 games played, Olen has 323 saves and a save percentage of .928. In the American Collegiate Hockey Association, he ranks 21st in goal against average.

But Olen is hesitant to claim credit for his weekend heroics. Instead, he acknowledges the defense’s contribution to his team’s productive weekend.

“A lot of the credit goes to the defense, because (Iowa State) didn’t get too many great chances all weekend,” Olen said. “I think they didn’t have a lot of two-on-ones, not a lot of breaks, so I think a lot of credit goes to (the defense).”

On the other hand, Illinois’ defenders rely on Olen.

“It makes my job a lot easier (having Olen in goal),” Nunez said. “Joe communicates with us pretty well, and he tells us to give him the outside shots and he’s going to stop those. If I have a two-on-one coming down I’m going to give the shooter the shot every time because I know Joe is going to make the save. On rushes or just in the zone, we keep guys to the outside to allow Joe to make the first save.”

Regardless of who deserves the credit for the Illini’s wins, Fabbrini knows the next time the team gives up a penalty shot, Olen will be ready for the challenge.

“He’s been great on breakaway and penalty shot situations all year and I have a tough time scoring on him in practice,” Fabbrini said. “When it comes down to that, he’s so big and athletic that he’s pretty tough to beat in one-on-one situations.”

Matt can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter

@MattGertsmeier.