Illini take pause from the season for rest and recovery

By Sean Neumann

This weekend, the Illini hockey team has its first week off in nearly two months.

No. 18 Illinois only gets two weeks off during the season’s first semester and is planning to use this one to rest its injured players and relax before heading out for a month of away games. 

Every Thursday night before games, the team gathers for a pasta dinner. Junior winger Jacob Matysiak said the team usually goes to a restaurant, but sometimes the task is passed along to junior defenseman Ricky Kokoszka.

“Ricky’s a great cook,” Matysiak said. “We all just throw some money to him and he makes a lot of good food, and we just get together and watch the Hawks game or whatever’s on.”

Although the Illini won’t have their traditional dinner this week, Matysiak said it’s likely that most of the team will still gather to watch the Chicago Blackhawks play the Dallas Stars on Saturday night.

Injury Update

More importantly, the break is an opportunity for injured Illini to rest up for next week’s series at No. 25 Indiana. Matt Johnson, Kyle Varzino and Kevin Chowaniec have been out with injuries, but Johnson and Varzino are expected to return against Indiana.

“Varzino played some big minutes for us at the en d of the year (last season),” Matysiak said. “He’s a greedy player and gets his way to the net.”

Chowaniec has a doctor’s appointment this week after suffering a concussion against No. 3 Robert Morris in mid-October, but isn’t expected to return against Indiana.

Senior winger Eddie Quagliata is also playing through a left arm injury, after cutting himself when his elbow pad slipped down and he went into the boards at the Big Pond. After receiving emergency surgery last week when the stitches fell out during the Lindenwood series and the cut got infected, Quagliata still played last weekend against No. 11 Ohio, despite being told by doctors that he shouldn’t partake in any physical exertion.

“(The doctors) told me: ‘Yeah, just don’t lift up anything that’s heavier than a pound or push anything that’s heavier than a pound.’ And I was like: ‘Yeah, sure.’” Quagliata said with a laugh after Saturday night’s game, during which he got into a fight alongside Matysiak and Cody von Rueden. “It shouldn’t be too bad, as long as I’m able to handle the pain.”

Inconsistency Still a Problem

Despite a dominant 5-2 victory over No. 11 Ohio on Saturday night, the Illini haven’t forgotten about the 8-1 loss suffered the day before. The loss caused them to drop two spots to No. 18 in the latest ACHA polls.

Head coach Nick Fabbrini blamed the team’s effort, heart and pride when asked about what’s causing the Illini’s inconsistency.

Illinois has lost at least one game per weekend since September, and were swept three consecutive weekends earlier this year. The team has lost eight of its last 10 games.

The Illini scored first in Saturday night’s 5-2 win over Ohio, something they weren’t able to do in their last nine games.

“There’s a lot of different ways to contribute to winning,” Fabbrini said. “One of the things we’ve talked about is contributing on a consistent basis and that doesn’t mean scoring goals. There’s a lot of different ways to contribute, whether it’s blocking shots or finishing your check.”

Physical intimidation was a major contributing factor in the Illini’s victory Saturday night, as the team is beginning to show signs of fighting back after big losses like Friday’s 8-1 defeat to Ohio. 

“It says a lot about our character to be able to rebound like that,” Fabbrini said. “It should show these guys what they’re capable of doing when we’re bringing effort for a full 60 minutes.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @Neumannthehuman.