Illinois hockey takes on Sooners without Olen brothers

Illinois+Joe+Olen+%2831%29+attempts+to+block+a+shot+during+the+hockey+game+vs.+Robert+Morris+at+the+Ice+Arena+on+Saturday%2C+Jan.+24%2C+2015.+The+Illini+lost+4-3.

Illinois’ Joe Olen (31) attempts to block a shot during the hockey game vs. Robert Morris at the Ice Arena on Saturday, Jan. 24, 2015. The Illini lost 4-3.

By Daniel Dexter

The Illinois hockey team will be tested again this weekend against No. 6 Oklahoma, but this time, it will be missing two of its best players: the Olen brothers.

Forward John Olen and goaltender Joe Olen were selected by USA Hockey to represent the United States at the 2015 Winter World University Games in Grenada, Spain. As a result, Illinois (17-13-1) will be missing its points leader and starting goaltender.

Despite the holes in both their offense and defense, head coach Nick Fabbrini is approaching the series against the Sooners (18-5-2-0) with a next-man-up mentality.

In place of Joe Olen, the team will start sophomore Zev Grumet-Morris in goal. Grumet-Morris received significant playing time prior to the semester break due to Joe Olen’s groin injury. Most recently, he replaced Olen in net in the second period of the team’s 5-2 victory over Robert Morris on Friday.

Fabbrini is also expecting his offensive players to step up in place of John Olen. Fabbrini hasn’t been happy with the team’s offensive output in its recent five-game losing streak, in which Illinois failed to score more than two goals in any game.

“There are a lot of guys who are going to get an opportunity to play this weekend, so now would be a good time for them to prove themselves offensively,” Fabbrini said.

The Sooners’ offense will take a serious hit this weekend with the absence of forwards Bryce Johnson and right wing Jordan Greenberg, who lead the team with 42 and 41 points, respectively. Johnson and Greenberg are also going to the World University Games. Oklahoma’s closest points scorer to those two is center Ty Jones with 25 on the season.

However, Illinois defenseman Josh Baker knows the team can’t take the Sooners lightly, especially after its last game against Robert Morris in which the Illini let up three goals in the first period. There was a team consensus that the early deficit was a result of a lack of effort after the previous night’s win. Illinois’ energy returned in the second and third periods but wasn’t enough for a win. For the series against the Sooners, the Illini hope to avoid any lackadaisical periods.

“We just have to keep the guys believing in what we are doing and make sure that we are all on the same page,” Baker said. “We can get back on pace, and, with last weekend, we started to do that a little bit.”

In preparation for this weekend, the team has been focusing on one-on-one defensive matchups because of the Oklahoma’s pro-style offense. Fabbrini said the Sooners play physically and often involve their defensive players on offensive rushes.

Fabbrini also believes the Illini play much better at home than on the road, and their record supports that. The Illini are 11-3-0 at home and 3-8-1 on the road. They’re in the midst of a six-game home stand, and Fabbrini expects them to return to the form they played with prior to their five-game losing streak — all five of which came on the road.

“It’s easier to go through your own routine when you get to sleep in your own bed as opposed to a bus,” Fabbrini said. “We are excited to be back, and these next four games are a great chance to get back to where we want to be.”

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