Illini fall short in ACHA title game


Elisabeth Neely

Eric Cruickshank (15) passes to a lineman across the ice past Lindenwood’s players at the Ice Arena on Friday, Dec. 1. Illini won in overtime 2-1.

By Gavin Good

For a moment it seemed like the roller coaster season of the Illinois men’s hockey team had one last thrill in it against Adrian College.

Instead, the ride was over, and the Illini will return home with a second place finish in the ACHA national tournament after falling 8-1.

David Kellner scored a goal early in the second period to pull the Illini to within one goal after falling behind 2-0 in the opening frame, however that rally was squashed by a three-goal run that gave Adrian a decisive 5-1 advantage.

It was an anticlimactic end to a postseason run that was the longest in nine years, marked by close wins along the way.

Illinois won three dramatic games in three days, including an overtime win over CSCHL rival Ohio and a 3-1 win over Jamestown that featured two shorthanded goals in the third period.

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After those two wins, Illinois faced the No. 1 seed in the tournament, Minot State.

The Illini defeated the Beavers 4-2 behind a second period Thomas Kolaz goal and a full-ice, empty-net goal from senior James McGing, the last of his collegiate career.

McGing and the Illinois offense were held mostly in check in the title game, only mustering 29 shots to Adrian’s 41.

“From the drop of the puck, we didn’t execute any part of the game plan,” Illinois head coach Nick Fabbrini said. “Bad night to have a bad night.”

It wasn’t just Illinois’ regular offense that struggled, as the special teams play that had gotten the Illini so far in the ACHA tourney went 0-4, including one that went without any shots.

Illinois had been 3-8 on the power play in the ACHA, with two of their four goals in the upset of Minot State coming with a man advantage, but on Tuesday, Adrian clamped down, forcing mistakes and quick shots.

“We were frantic,” Fabbrini said. “We’re making one pass and forcing shots into traffic instead of moving around and taking what they gave us.”

The offense wasn’t the only problem Tuesday night. Goalie David Heflin allowed eight goals on 41 shots. While he did make some highlight reel stops, he and the Illini defense allowed the most goals of the season.

It was again anticlimactic for the senior netminder who racked up 132 saves in the three games prior, including 56 in the win over Ohio, and finished with 165 for the tournament.

“Some guys didn’t play up to the level they have all year for us,” Fabbrini said. “Some of the guys who were the most instrumental in getting us in the championship game.”

Fabbrini added that the fatigue of three straight close games in three days may have led to the Illini’s struggles.

Tuesday was the final career game for seven Illinois seniors, who helped lead the team to a 26-10-0-2 record, and a second place finish in both the CSCHL and the ACHA tournament.

However, it wasn’t just the old guard, as younger players stepped up and filled important roles. Sophomore Bobby Ernsting and freshman Drew Richter tied for the team lead in scoring this year with 13 goals each.

Backup sophomore goalie Jake Barnhart also gave the Illini a solid contribution when Heflin was injured late in the year, winning nine of his first 10 starts. Barnhart was in net for Illinois’ run in the CSCHL playoffs, helping them make the title game for the first time in almost a decade.

“When you lose in a championship game, it’s hard to put things into perspective,” Fabbrini said. “[It’s hard] to understand everything you’ve accomplished as a group.”

Two years removed from first round exits in both the CSCHL and ACHA tournaments, the Illini built on the improvements made last year, helping Fabbrini earn CSCHL coach of the year honors.

The Illini also had the CSCHL rookie of the year in defenseman Joe Nolan, who was fifth on the team in points, and tied senior captain Joey Ritondale for the lead on the team among defensemen in goals.

Nolan and Richter both made the All-Rookie team as well.

Ritondale was the Illini’s lone representative on the CSCHL first team as well as the all-defensive team. Fellow senior James McGing was awarded second-team honors.

Under all this improvement, the looming possibility of becoming an NCAA program hovers over the Illini.

“We felt this was a really important year for us, just because of everything that’s happening with hockey around the University,” Fabbrini said. “With the exception of tonight, I think our guys really delivered for us.”

A recent study done by Collegiate Consulting found that “the strong consensus of everyone involved in college hockey is that NCAA men’s hockey will flourish at the University of Illinois.”

There is also support from the Chicago Blackhawks of the NHL regarding getting Illinois hockey into the NCAA.

“It’s always been a desirable place to play,” Fabbrini said. “Over the last two days alone, I’ve probably gotten 30 emails from players interested in the program, both as a club and an NCAA program.”

The future may be bright, but Fabbrini and the Illini won’t forget this year.

“We came from behind pretty much all season long and we battled,” Fabbrini said. “It really speaks to the character this group had.”


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