Illinois hockey will face Syracuse in the first round of the ACHA tournament

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Illinois’ Eric Cruickshank defends the puck during the game against Indiana Tech at the UI Ice Arena on Friday, February 27, 2016.

By Ethan Swanson

Three weeks ago, the future of the Illinois hockey team’s season was uncertain.

Coming off two brutal losses to Ohio University on the road and sitting fourth out of five teams in the CSCHL, the Illini were struggling to bolster their resume with only one series left before the ACHA selected the 20-team field for the ACHA National Tournament.

Ranked No. 21 in the ACHA rankings entering the Feb. 12-13 series with Illinois State, Illinois had to win, and win convincingly, to give it a shot making the field.

With 5-2 and 6-1 wins, respectively, the Illini did just that, and the following week were selected as the No. 15 seed in the national tournament.

This Thursday, Illinois (20-14-3) will take on No. 18-seed Syracuse (23-8-2) in Bensenville, Illinois, in the first round of nationals — hoping to justify their selection and prove they’re just as much of a contender for the championship as any team.

“We’re still having a hard time understanding the energy level and commitment it takes to win on a consistent basis this year,” head coach Nick Fabbrini said, “But when we show up and play the way we want to play and are capable of playing, we’ve been as good as any team in the country – and I think that’s what makes us a dangerous team coming into in the national tournament.”

Sharing the same orange and blue color scheme is the extent of familiarity these two teams have with one another considering they’ve never faced each other.

As a member of the NECHL, Syracuse finished the season with a conference record of 8-1-1.

However, perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Orange is that they are actually better on the road than at home.

Syracuse holds a 9-6-1 record at home, but a 14-2-1 outside campus; the team has +4 goal differential in their 16 home games and a +15 differential on the road. The Orange don’t typically beat their opponents by multiple goals, but rather outlast them in tight, low-scoring affairs. 14 of Syracuse’s 33 games have been decided by one goal, with the Orange winning nine of them.

Illinois, on the other hand, has had a woeful season away from Illinois Ice Arena — compiling a 2-8-1 road record while being outscored 54-30.

“We’re working on doing a better job keeping shots to the outside,” Fabbrini said. “Trying to outnumber guys on the puck down low and give up the shots we’re willing to give up. If we’re able to keep pucks to the outside, we’re going to have a great chance to win games.”

What Illinois does have in its arsenal is some of the best individual talent in the ACHA.

Defensively the Illini will lean on CSCHL regular-season MVP goalie Joe Olen, who’s been stingy between the pipes all season. The junior has recorded 11 of the Illini’s 20 wins, 745 saves and boasts a .927 save percentage while playing in a conference that hosts four other ACHA tournament qualifiers.

Brother John Olen along with all-CSCHL first teamer James Mcging and Illini goal leader Eric Cruickshank will likely lead the charge on the offensive end. Each player has netted a hat trick this season and have combined for 113 points on the year. Mcging’s 49 points rank No. 1 in the CSCHL and No. 20 in the ACHA.

“It’s good to get everyone on the board and scoring points,” Cruckshank said. “We’re going to continue doing what we’ve been doing all year.”

The last time the Illini played in a single-game elimination tournament was the CSCHL conference tournament Feb. 19, losing in the first round to Robert Morris 4-1. To avoid another early exit, Illinois will have to show up and play a full 60 minutes of hockey, according to Fabbrini. As for the players, junior defenseman Austin Zima summed it up best earlier in the season.

“Every year our goal is to win the national championship, that won’t change.”

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