Illinois hockey bounces back for big win against Robert Morris

By Cole Henke

The Illinois hockey team was eager to start its conference season on a high note against Robert Morris on FridayJT. The Illini ended up having to wait one more night to reach that high note.

The No. 7 Eagles (1-3-0 CSCHL) started their conference season with two losses to Lindenwood. But they picked up their first conference win of the year against the No. 13 Illini (1-1-0 CSCHL) on Friday night.

Illinois sophomore forward Shaunak Pal credited poor consistency for Friday’s result. The Illini were down 1-0 after the first period, but early in the third period, the Eagles were up 3-0. The final score was 4-1.

“We took a little bit of time to get going,” Pal said. “That has been a problem for our team all season. It takes a while to really find our game. We take stupid penalties and give them chances.”

Pal said while the Illini didn’t necessarily play badly Friday, they could have played a lot better. Saturday night’s game was completely different though. The Illini beat the Eagles 5-3, behind a hat-trick from forward Eric Cruickshank.

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    According to Cruickshank, the real story of the game was that his team played the full 60 minutes. The Illini fell behind early after a power-play goal by the Eagles, but Cruickshank started to heat up in the second period.

    He netted two of his three goals in the second period. The first goal came when the teams were playing four-on-four during a minor penalty for both sides. The second goal came while the Illini were short-handed.

    Entering the third period the two sides were tied, but goals from Pal, Cruickshank and junior Josh Belmont secured the game for the Illini.

    It was Cruickshank’s second multi-goal game this season.

    “It is obviously great to lead the team in that aspect,” Cruickshank said. “I wouldn’t be able to score the goals without my teammates making the initial plays. For example, I wouldn’t have scored my second goal without (Pal) giving me a great pass.”

    Pal scored the go-ahead goal early in the third quarter, which he called “a big-energy goal.” That goal opened the floodgates for the Illini.

    The offense was not the only part of the Illini’s game firing on all cylinders. The defensive zone stayed solid all night.

    The Illini defensemen blocked more than 30 shots during the game Saturday. The Eagles were putting more shots on goal than the Illini all weekend. Even in Saturday’s third period, when Illinois scored three goals, Robert Morris still put more shots on goal (13-7).

    “We did a great job clearing the puck,” Pal said. “On Friday, we were turning the puck over a lot on defense. Saturday we did a lot better job keeping control of the puck and moving it down the ice.”

    The Illini played man-to-man defense on both nights, but Cruickshank said the communication between the players on Saturday was much better than on Friday. The defensive zone stayed tight and kept the Eagles from getting inside.

    Illinois had yet to take down a nationally ranked opponent this season, despite being ranked No. 13. Every other team in the CSCHL conference is ranked in the top 10, and the Illini hope that Saturday’s win over the Eagles won’t be the team’s last top-10 victory.

    “I think this weekend really showed who we are,” Cruickshank said. “It showed we can beat a good team and play a full 60 minutes.”