Illinois hockey is geared up for a tournament run

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Michael Bianchini

Illinois’ John Olen shoots the puck at the game against Indiana Tech on Saturday, February 27, 2016.

By Lucas Wright

Tweet: [email protected] tunes up for it’s first national tourney game vs. Syracuse

Everyone is coming back at the perfect time for the Illinois hockey team.

This season’s squad has been riddled with injuries, including captain John Olen, senior Yoshi Shibata and leading goal-scorer Eric Cruickshank.

Olen’s ankle injury ran its course before the turn of the new year, but he admitted that he felt lingering pain up until recent weeks. Cruickshank was the next Illini off the injury train, returning to play after missing a few games with a minor injury, according to head coach Nick Fabbrini.

The latest Illinois player to return to play is senior and crowd favorite Yoshi Shibata, who saw limited action throughout the year. Shibata has dealt with injuries over the course of the season, and Fabbrini jokingly said in his remarks on senior night that Shibata’s body is “breaking down.”

Olen said that Shibata’s returning to the team provides a boost to the team production and morale at the perfect time for the Illini.

“It was really nice to see Yoshi back in the lineup,” Olen said. “We’re getting everyone back, slowly but surely, and now we’re just gearing up for nationals.”

Preparing for an unknown opponent

The Illini will open its ACHA National Tournament against No. 18 Syracuse, a team they have never faced.

The Orange, members of the NECHL, finished their conference schedule with an 8-1-1 record against five teams the Illini haven’t faced either. The uncertainty is having an effect on Illinois, but Frabbini said the Illini have a game plan in mind coming off their game with Indiana Tech.

“I think Indiana is very similar to Syracuse. They’re ranked about the same spot in the computer rankings,” Fabbrini said. “So I think this was a good tune-up game of what we’re going to be seeing.”

Syracuse recently faced off against Robert Morris, the team who knocked Illinois out in the first round of the CSCHL Tournament, and the Orange split the two game series.

Even though the Orange are coming into the tournament with plenty of momentum from the regular season, Fabbrini said the Illini will treat this game like any other.

“We don’t know a whole lot about them, but we’re going to have to be at our best because it’s never easy to end someone’s season.”

Joe Olen well-rested coming into Nationals

In one-and-done situations, having your best player between the posts and in top condition is preferable and exactly what the Illini have accomplished.

Sophomore goalie Joe Olen played only 20 minutes of shutout hockey in Illinois’ senior weekend match-up with Indiana Tech.

Fabbrini said Olen playing partial time in the weekend’s matchup was the plan, but an early start for the Illini made the decision to pull him very easy.

“We hadn’t planned on him playing the full game regardless. We just wanted to see how it went,” Fabbrini said. “But when we came out with that kind of start, it just gave us the opportunity to get him out of there.”

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@LucasWright95