Illinois hopes to find offense on home ice this weekend


Tyler Courtney | The Daily Illin

Head coach Nick Fabrini shouts instructions to his players during the game against Ohio University at the Ice Arena on Friday, Oct. 23. Illinois won 2-0.

By Ethan Swanson

Tweet: .@IlliniHockey will look to bring itself out of its New Year slump with its first home series of the year against Rochester College

Winter break seemed to come at an opportune time for the Illini, as they literally and figuratively limped into December with a number of nagging injuries and a dismal 2-4 finish to 2015. Their start was characterized by inconsistent play and a plummet in the CSCHL standings.

The ACHA’s near-month break from competition gave No. 17 Illinois time to regroup, refocus and finally get healthy for the final stretch of the season with the postseason lurking just two months away in mid-March.

So far, however, 2016 has not been the Illini’s year.

Since reopening the season Jan. 10, the Illini are 1-3, getting swept on the road by No. 6 Adrian College and splitting a series with conference foe No.9 Iowa State in Ames, Iowa.

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    “Any ACHA opponent, no matter the size of the school, is going to give you a fight,” sophomore forward Eric Cruickshank said. “We’re a young team, but we know what it takes to win in this league, and we just haven’t done it.”

    This weekend, Illinois (13-10-3) will be on its home ice for the first time this New Year in a two-game series with Rochester College (11-11-1), looking to put together back-to-back wins and gain momentum entering the end of the conference schedule.

    If the Illini want to get a win Friday and have success for the remainder of the season, they have to get their high-powered offense back up to speed.

    In the last four games, Illinois has averaged fewer than two goals per game and were held to just one goal in the first two games of the New Year — the Illini had only scored one goal in a game twice the first fourth months of the season.

    Part of the issue could possibly be attributed to changes in head coach Nick Fabbrini’s first and second offensive lines.

    After breaking his ankle in the first month of the season, senior captain and last season’s point leader John Olen returned to the Illini roster in late November and was originally placed on the second line with Josh Belmont and Shannuk Pal as he eased his way back to full game strength.

    After a month off to fully heal, Olen replaced Grant Stueve on the first line with Illinois’ sophomore scoring duo Cruickshank and James Mcging, who are tied for the team lead in points with 29 apiece.

    Mcging and Cruickshank have not seen the same production as they did with Stueve during Olen’s absence. Cruickshank, the team leader in goals, has only scored on a penalty shot in the last four games. Mcging, the team assist leader, has only two assists and an unassisted goal over the same time frame.

    “In the beginning of the season, I had to play guys at certain spots and roles were more defined because of our short bench,” Fabbrini said. “Now that everyone is 100 percent, I have to figure out how to make all our pieces fit offensively.”

    “The ankle feels good,” Olen added. “I just want to do whatever I can to help this team, whether its scoring, deferring or defense, I just want to help us win.”

    Rochester has not been great on the road this season, holding a 5-5 away record. Although, the Warriors average over three goals a game outside their home arena.

    Having a goalie like Joe Olen with a .938 save percentage and over 602 saves is a major luxury for Illinois, but Joe can only stop goals, not score them. The Illini’s offensive will have to show up this weekend if they want to bring themselves out of this New Year slump and make any noise in the CSCHL tournament come March.

    “Our goals never change,” junior defenseman Austin Zima said. “We know what this team is capable of.”

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