Illini hockey sweeps Michigan State in opening weekend

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Karolina Marczewski

James Mcging (13) looks for an opening during the game against Michigan State at the University of Illinois Ice arena on September 19, 2015.

By Ethan Swanson

Hockey is finally back in Champaign.

After nearly a five-month lay-off, the Illinois Ice Arena was once again filled with Illini faithful ready for their first look at the 2015-2016 Illinois hockey team as it faced off against Michigan State in a two-game series.

Just as eager as fans for the puck to drop Friday night, the Illini made the wait worth it.

“We turned it up a notch,” said head coach Nick Fabbrini. “I thought we did a great job of playing to our strengths: getting pucks behind their defenseman and using our speed to play below their goal line. When our forwards are able to do those things, that’s when we’re at our best.”

Friday night, the Illini skated circles around the Spartans, producing a plethora of offense in a 6-0 statement victory Friday and 4-2 comeback win on Saturday.

Illini goals didn’t come instantly, however. Illinois only fired off five shots on goal in the first period of Friday’s matchup compared with Michigan State’s seven. A Spartan penalty at 5:42 in the second period was the match that lit the fuse to Illinois’ offensive explosion.

On the ensuing power play, sophomore forward Eric Cruickshank lit the lamp for the first time this season with a top-shelf rocket past Michigan State’s goaltender.

“(Cruickshank) is a dynamic player,” Fabbrini said. “When he gets time and space, he typically makes things happen. It was big for him to get us off and running.”

Sophomore Mike Fischer made sure Cruickshank wasn’t the only Illini member in the scoring column, following close behind with a goal of his own, assisted by forward Chris Lozinak.

Even the defensemen got in on the scoring action Friday night.

With under a minute left to play in the second period, junior Austin Zima created a turnover in the Spartan’s offensive zone and single-handedly moved the puck up the ice to get a clean shot on goal that was ultimately cleaned up by junior Josh Belmont off the rebound.

“We just kept our legs going and never let off the gas when (Michigan State) got tired,” Fischer said. “Our defense did a great job of moving their feet and limiting their opportunities while helping to create ours.”

Third period goals by a trio of sophomores — Cruickshank, Grant Stueve and Andrew Wicklin — put the exclamation point on Friday’s victory.

Saturday’s game followed a much different script.

This time it was the Spartans that jumped out in front with two first-period goals, giving the Illini their first taste of adversity in the young season.

“Beating someone 6-0 can play in the back of your mind a little bit and make you come out a little more relaxed the next night,” Cruickshank said. “We definitely showed some character tonight in the way we responded and showed ourselves we can win even when we get down early.”

Cruickshank would once again lead the charge for the Illini offense, lighting up the scoreboard with a power-play goal roughly four and a half minutes into the second period.

The Illini didn’t have any shortage of powerplays Saturday night. Managing to get a 5-on-3 advantage twice in the game, the second of which Zima would capitalize on with a goal in the third period to tie the game.

Michigan State’s sloppy, overly physical play in the third would prove to be the deciding factor, and it was sophomore James Mcging, who would deliver that decisive blow to the Spartans.

Off an interference call, Mcging was granted at penalty shot. With the game on the line, the sophomore snuck the puck past the Spartan goaltender and gave the Illini their first lead of the night.

“He made a great defensive play then beat his man up the ice,” Fabbrini said. “He got hauled down and (the referee) gave me the option of a power play or penalty shot. McGing had already won us a game last season in the same situation, so we had full faith that he’d be able to do it again.”

Senior Yoshi Shibata iced the game with an unassisted goal at 16:46, giving the Illini the 4-2 win and breaking out the brooms for the series sweep.

Despite beginning the season 2-0 and giving fans quite a show, Fabbrini and his players realize that the team is yet to put together a full 60 minutes of hockey: something Illinois will need to do if it wants to live up to its lofty preseason expectations and solidify its No. 12 ACHA ranking.

“We can’t come out flat and expect to hang around with good teams,” Fabbrini said. “I told my guys they need to believe in the process and what works for us. We have room to improve — and we will.”

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