Illini hockey limps into Homecoming weekend to face Ohio

Left+winger+Eric+Cruickshank+takes+a+shot+on+goal+against+Robert+Morris+on+Saturday+at+the+Ice+Arena.+Illinois+won+5-3+and+Cruickshank+had+three+goals+and+an+assist.

Tyler Courtney | The Daily Illin

Left winger Eric Cruickshank takes a shot on goal against Robert Morris on Saturday at the Ice Arena. Illinois won 5-3 and Cruickshank had three goals and an assist.

By Ethan Swanson

Entering the grind of conference play, any college sports team can expect to have some bumps and bruises throughout the roster.

But very few teams expect to already have experienced serious injuries to key playmakers — the unfortunate situation of the Illinois hockey team heading into this weekend.

Although Illinois (5-3) has regained starting defensemen Aaron Dusek and Joey Caprio, who suffered from undisclosed injuries after the Illini’s series at Oklahoma Sept. 25-26, head coach Nick Fabbrini and his team must take on their biggest test of the year in Ohio University (8-2) without last season’s scoring leader John Olen.

“We just need to not get hurt,” Fabbrini said. “We can’t scale back the intensity in practice since it’s already October, and guys who are banged-up and aren’t practicing still need to keep their legs moving to be ready when they can come back. To get healthy and stay healthy, we just need some luck in that department.”

Olen’s broken ankle following the Illini’s two-game sweep of Alabama was not the type of luck Illinois was looking for, nor was the timing – with Olen out for about a month, the Illini could be without him for three series with CSCHL opponents, including this week’s matchup with ACHA No. 2 Ohio.

Last season, the Bobcats ranked sixth in the ACHA rankings with a 27-7-6 record – seven spots ahead of the Illini who finished 24-16-1.

This season, Ohio boasts a +41 goal differential and is 3-0 in road games thus far in the season, compared to a +10 goal differential and a 0-2 road record for Illinois.

“No offense to Oklahoma or Robert Morris, this is probably going to be the best team we’ve played up to this point,” Fabbrini said. “They were ranked No. 1 in the ACHA last week for a reason. We need to take care of our energy and minimize our own mistakes with any group of guys we put out on the ice this weekend.”

The Illini do have a couple things working in their favor this weekend.

Ohio is coming of its first and only two losses of the season at the hands of fellow CSCHL member Lindenwood University and the Illini happen to have one of the most potent offensive weapons in the entire ACHA: Eric Cruickshank.

Cruickshank is fresh off a hat trick as part of a four-goal weekend in a series split with Robert Morris University. The sophomore has carried most of the scoring load this season and shows no signs of stopping with a team-high 11 points in just seven games played.

Handing the Bobcats their third consecutive loss will be a tall order for a depleted Illinois lineup this Friday, but with Cruickshank lurking on the left wing and a homecoming crowd in the stands, it’s not an impossible task.

“They’re vulnerable right now,” Cruickshank said. “Every weekend in the CSCHL is a big one, and this one definitely won’t be easy. It falls on everyone to fill the void Olen’s left, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have success without him.”

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