Illinois hockey hoping for a rebound year


Austin Yattoni

Illinois’ Eric Cruickshank carries the puck up the ice during the game against Lindenwold University at the Ice Arena on Saturday, January 30. The Illini lost 4-1.

By Stephen Cohn, Staff writer

Illinois hockey is healthier and more experienced in 2016, after fighting through senior captain John Olen’s injuries last February.

“Right now, the focus is baby steps,” junior forward Eric Cruickshank said. “We’re not going to make any assumptions that we’re going to win a national championship, but we’re definitely going to make strides from what we did last year.”

The Illini finished last season 20-15-3, which ended with a first-round exit at the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) tournament. Illinois was ranked 17th in the final ACHA poll of the season, the worst in the Central States Collegiate Hockey League (CSCHL).

Junior forward James McGing paced Illinois with 49 points and 30 assists —both CSCHL highs — last season, while Cruickshank finished second on the team with 39 points.

The Illini graduated five seniors, including Olen, following last season. Olen’s departure opens up a captain and leadership position on the team, which fifth-year head coach Nick Fabbrini says will be determined in training camp.

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“Last year, character was a bit of an issue; we didn’t really have a strong voice in the locker room, and that’s what we needed,” Fabbrini said. “We’re going to have plenty of talent coming back, but being the most talented guy on the team doesn’t make you a great leader.”

Fabbrini says he hit the recruiting trail this summer from Springfield, Illinois to Brookings, South Dakota looking for talent with junior hockey experience.

“Last year, we had too many guys that just didn’t contribute, so there’s going to be a lot of new faces this year and along with that, the performance and culture are going to be much better,” Fabbrini said.

John Olen’s younger brother, Joe, looks to have another MVP campaign this year after allowing 2.63 goals per game and honored as the CSCHL’s

Most Valuable Player last season. Cruickshank praises Olen for his levelheaded demeanor and ability to carry the load for the team at times.

“To win games, you have to have a good goalie,” Cruickshank said. “And the teams that don’t do as well in the ACHA have a goalie that is a little weaker. We’re able to compensate our mistakes by knowing that we have Joe back there to bail us out when we need him.”

Defenseman Tyler Opilka will look to capitalize on a strong freshman season when he broke onto the scene earning CSCHL all-rookie and all-defensive team honors.

Illinois opens the regular season at home against Michigan State on Sept. 30 at 7:00 pm and begins CSCHL play Oct. 29 in Champaign against Iowa State.

Lindenwood University, the defending-ACHA champion, visits The Big Pond in January. The Illini upset the top-ranked Lions at home last year.

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