Illinois hockey maintains winning record after win over Northern Illinois


Elisabeth Neely

Tyler Opika gains possession and takes the puck up the ice to Ohio’s zone at the Ice Arena on Feb. 11. Opika scored his fourth goal of the season on Friday.

By Erich Fisher, Staff writer

The start to the Illinois hockey team’s season has gone almost exactly as envisioned.

The Illini improved to 6-0 for the season after sweeping Northern Illinois at home in a weekend series.

Despite the final scores of the games, the Illinois team got off to rough starts in each contest, finding itself trailing 1-0 early into the first period Friday and Saturday night.

Head coach Nick Fabbrini made adjustments after both games, with the team scoring three unanswered goals on Friday and outscoring the Huskies 8-1 after NIU’s first goal on Saturday.

“We started to tighten up the defense zone,” Fabbrini said. “I think we gave up eight shots in the period (of Saturday’s game) and then four in the second and third. That’s just a testament to these guys tightening down and taking care of our end first, and that’s a key for us.”

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Senior forward Eric Svejda scored all three of Northern Illinois’ goals on the weekend, which included a snipe from the left wing to give his team a 1-0 lead about two minutes into the game.

However, freshman forward Justin Ries continued the hot start to his rookie campaign, scoring the first Illini goal of Friday’s game and his second goal of the season.

Illinois added on another goal in the second period when junior defenseman Tyler Opilka netted his fourth goal of the season.

The Huskies did not back down to the Illini though, keeping it a 2-1 game until senior forward Eric Cruickshank scored a power-play goal with only 1:02 left in the game.

Much of Northern Illinois’s ability to hang around was the result of a big night from senior goaltender JoJo Durrbeck between the pipes for Northern Illinois.

Illinois sophomore Jake Barnhart got the first start of his career for the Illini and allowed only one goal to slip past him.

Friday’s game was just the start of the big weekend Cruickshank was about to have, as he scored twice in the series finale.

But, it was the play of the fresh faces on the roster that stole the show in Saturday’s game.

Illinois forward Ricky Hatton skated for his first time with the Division I team and scored his first career goal on a rebound opportunity to give his team a 3-2 lead with 5:38 left in the first period.

“It feels pretty good,” Hatton said. “Everyone was moving really good and it was a good game.”

Another former Division II player scored his first career goal as defenseman Jack Graham buried a pass from senior forward James McGing in the back of the net to give the Illini a 6-2 lead roughly 2:30 into the second period.

“It feels pretty awesome. It’s a lot more fun, and there are a lot more people here,” Graham said. “(McGing) gave me a good pass, and I kind of closed my eyes, shot and it went in.”

Everyone on Illinois’s first line notched goals on the night as senior forward Grant Stueve and freshman forward Andrew Richter joined Cruickshank with goals in the first period.

Freshman defenseman Joe Nolan sniped a shot past the Huskies’ senior goaltender Nick Bove’s glove side from the left faceoff circle. Then sophomore forward Stephen Quinn went bar down in the third period to give the Illini their eighth and final goal of the game.

Sophomore goaltender Ross Lipic continued a solid start to his season in the net, moving to 2-0 on the year as the starting goaltender for Illinois.

With divisional play only about two weeks away, Fabbrini and his team will be looking to fine-tune their play against McKendree University, Oct. 13.

“We need to keep getting better,” Fabbrini said. “Minimizing mistakes is big for us and taking care of our defensive zone. Obviously, we have a lot of talent up front, and we are going to get our chances, so playing good defense it a key for us.”


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