A depleted Illinois hockey team trounces Alabama twice in Chicago


Kevin Vongnaphone | Senior photo

Illinois’ Josh Belmont (10) manuevers the puck down the rink during round one of the CSCHL hockey tournament v. Iowa State at the Ice Arena on Friday, Feb. 20, 2015. Illinois won 2-1.

By Ethan Swanson

Tweet: .@IlliniHockey gets two major bounce-back victories in Chicago against ACHA-rookie Alabama #Illini

For a team playing its inaugural season in the American Collegiate Hockey Association, Alabama (2-2) was looking to play an established, successful ACHA opponent when scheduling this weekend’s series in Chicago against Illinois (4-2).EJ

The Illini dominated the Crimson Tide, sweeping the series and giving them anything but a warm welcome to Division I club hockey.

Even with injuries to starting defensemen Joey Caprio and Aaron Dusek, Illinois was still able to put together a solid defensive performance en route to a 7-0EJshut-out win in Friday’s series-opener.

“It’s been up to our entire defensive core and our forwards to fill the void those guys created,” said head coach Nick FabbriniEJ. “We’ve had to lean on some of our older players by giving them more minutes and rely on some of our freshman play their role.”

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    An Alabama minor boarding penalty just 11 seconds into the first period was all Illinois needed to get the ball rolling.

    A little over a minute later, sophomore Joseph Ritondale netted the Illini’s first goal of the night off the early power play. A breakaway goal courtesy of freshman Valentino Wilson about halfway through the first gave the Illini their 19th shot-on-goal of the period and a 2-0 lead heading into the first intermission.EJ

    The floodgates burst open for the Illinois offense in the second period. Just 17 seconds in, sophomore Shaunak Pal lit the lamp again for the Illini, and back-to-back goals scored by junior Josh Belmont extended the lead to 5-0 after less than 40 minutes.EJ

    Two garbage-time goals from Yoshi Shibata late in the second and midway through the third period on a power play gave Illinois its 7-0 win.

    Saturday’s matchup once again featured a stout Illini defense, but the theme of the game was the Illini’s early offensive explosion — especially for a team that had only scored one first-period goal in four games prior to Friday.

    Within the first five minutes of Saturday’s series-closer, Illinois had already snuck three pucks past the Alabama goalie — one courtesy of junior Austin Zima and a pair by sophomore Grant Stueve.EJ

    “We knew we had to change our mindset for that first 20 minutes,” Olen said. “It was a mental thing we had to get past, because we know we have the talent to score goals at any time during a game.”

    The Illini defense finally faltered in the second period, giving up a goal 28 seconds into play. However, the Illini soon responded with a redirect by sophomore Connor Robbs and Belmont’s third goal of the weekend to hold a comfortable 5-1 lead heading into the final period.EJ

    After sophomore James Mcging extended the lead to 6-1 early in the third, Alabama scored its second and final goal of the game and weekend off a 5-on-3 advantage from two Illinois penalties, giving the game its 6-2 final tally and the Illinois sweep.EJ

    “It’s always nice to play in Chicago, we treat it like a home game,” Olen said. “A lot of guys get to sleep in our own beds, get a home cooked meal, then head to the rink – and I think we showed Alabama they have a tough road ahead in this league.”

    [email protected] @EthanSwanson88