Illinois hockey gearing up for second-half run

By Ethan Swanson

Tweet: Illinois Hockey has been inconsistent so far this season #IlliniBy Ethan Swanson

Editor’s note: This story’s publication was before Illinois played Western Michigan on Dec. 11-12.

The first half of the Illinois hockey season has not been a failure by any measure, but there is a sense of disappointment among the players and coaches in the Illini’s 11-6-3 startRB.

The Illini began the season ranked No. 12 in the ACHA preseason pollRB and looked to make a deep playoff run after returning the majority of their starters, including 2014-15 Illinois point-leader John Olen.

    Subscribe to our sports newsletter!

    With the team plagued by inconsistent play, fans are scratching their heads as they witness Illinois being dominant one weekend, then lay an egg the next.

    “Consistency is something we’ve addressed often,” head coach Nick Fabbrini said. “We’re still a relatively young team, so guys are still learning what it takes to win night in and night out in this league.”

    In the span of a month, the Illini were able to record two ACHA top-five wins against Ohio University and Iowa State. But in each of those series, the Illini lost a game in a shootoutRB. In the same timeframe, however, Illinois suffered a 7-1 loss to a below .500 Illinois State team ranked at the bottom of the ACHARB.

    Illinois holds a 4-6 conference record, which puts it in second-to-last in a tight CSCHL race in which only four points separate first and last place.

    Part of the Illini’s struggles this season have been due to injuries to key players.

    Illinois is just now getting fully healthy – forced to play with a depleted defensive zone with early injuries to veteran defensemen Aaron Dusek and Joey Caprio, while taking a hit on the scoring end with injuries to forwards Mike Fischer and the senior captain Olen.

    “Getting healthy and staying healthy has by far been our biggest problem,” Fabbrini said. “We can’t scale things down in practice because we’re already half way through the year, but we also want to get guys back as soon as possible.”

    In the midst of all the Illini’s health issues, a few Illinois skaters have stepped up into leadership roles and are putting together the best season of their careers.

    The sophomore duo of James Mcging and Eric Cruickshank have emerged to carry the bulk of the offensive load, producing 51 points combinedRB. Mcging has proven to be the quarterback of Illinois’ first line, dishing out 19 assistsRB and tacking on 6 goalsRB, while Cruickshank has come into his own as the Illini’s go-to scorer, netting 16 goals in 19 games.RB

    While his brother John Olen was out, goalie Joe Olen kept the family name in the mind of Illini fans. Responsible for seven of the Illini’s 11 wins, Olen has been solid between the pipes all year: racking up 442 saves and holding a .940 save percentage that ranks third in the ACHA.RB

    “I’ve been really proud of how those guys have stepped up,” John said. “Now it just gives us more depth and experience at every position.”

    With John in his third week back from a broken ankle, the Illini roster now seems to be at full strength for nearly the first time all season. Coupled with the emergence of the team’s new superstars, the players and coaches believe Illinois is now equipped to make the second-half push it needs to get back in the CSCHL title race and the national ACHA tournament conversation.

    “We won’t make a ‘run’ because that implies getting lucky,” said Austin Zima defenseman. “We’ll succeed because we choose to.”

    [email protected]