Illinois hockey looks to climb conference rankings on the road

By Sean Neumann

If the Illini hockey team can’t find any wins at home, it’s time to start looking for them on the road.

No. 17 Illinois (8-7-1, 2-5-1 CSCHL) lost six of its eight home games this past month but will look to grab a pair of conference wins on the road against Indiana (3-7-1, 0-7-1 CSCHL).

The Illini will be playing on the road until mid-December, visiting No. 3 Robert Morris, No. 5 Central Oklahoma, No. 6 Oklahoma and Indiana in the process.

Illinois has lost eight of its past 10 games since early October, which saw them gradually fall from the No. 4 ranked team in the nation to No. 18. The Illini are coming off a bye week, and head coach Nick Fabbrini said the Illini players needed last weekend off to recover mentally.

“Before the season, I didn’t see this past month going as difficultly as it did,” Fabbrini admitted. “Every game for us at this point is a must-win.”

Fabbrini emphasized the importance of winning the team’s remaining games against CSCHL opponents, in order to defend last season’s conference championship — a title the Illini have won three times in the past decade (2003, 2008, 2013).

He said he still has confidence in the team’s chances of defending the CSCHL title, since he doesn’t expect any team to run away with the league championship. But with his team sitting in fifth place in the conference and five of six teams ranked in the ACHA top 25, Fabbrini said it won’t be an easy task.

“We’ve kind of painted ourselves into a corner here a little bit,” Fabbrini said. “If we can win the vast majority of our games going forward, I think that we’ll be in it at the end.”

There are very few easy wins left on the Illini schedule, but Illinois knows it must play its best hockey from here on out — even against Indiana, the conference’s last-place team (0-7-1 in CSCHL play).

The Hoosiers have 12 freshmen on the 26-man roster.

Sophomore forward John Olen said the Illini players aren’t taking the Hoosiers lightly, and this weekend’s pair of games are absolute must-wins.

“We’re definitely not overlooking them,” Olen said. “If we come in and don’t come to play, those are easily games we could lose.”

The well-rested Illini will welcome back junior winger Kyle Varzino and sophomore Matt Johnson this weekend in Indiana, while the bye week gave senior Eddie Quagliata an opportunity to rest the elbow injury he had been playing through since late October.

Illini goaltender Joe Olen called this weekend’s series against Indiana a do-or-die situation for the team, looking for a pair of conference victories against an Indiana team that is 3-1-1 at home this season.

“We’re putting a lot of emphasis on this weekend,” Joe Olen said. “These are two huge games to get into the conference standings and really make a push.”

Fabbrini said the team needs to play well for two games in a row each weekend, something the Illini haven’t done since sweeping Michigan State’s Division-II team in late September.

“We need to focus on winning every game we can here going forward,” Fabbrini said. “The first month and a half of the season is over with. There’s nothing we can do about it, so we need to continue building up.”

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