Welch’s game-winner gives Illini much-needed boost

By Sean Neumann

Editor’s note: The Daily Illini sports desk sits down Sunday nights and decides which Illinois athlete or coach is our Illini of the Week. Athletes and coaches are evaluated by individual performance and contribution to team success.

Matt Welch has had 25 goals in his Illini hockey career, but none has been more important than the one he scored Saturday night.

In the third period against rival No. 4 Ohio, the No. 20 Illinois hockey team was down 3-1 before senior Eddie Quagliata and sophomore John Olen managed to tie the game midway through the period.

With about seven minutes left in the game, Welch won a face off and took the puck around the corner and passed it back to his fellow assistant captain, Mike Evans. Evans then dumped the puck across the blue line to sophomore Josh Baker, who took a shot at the Bobcats’ net that went wide. Luckily for the Illini, Welch was there to tip it in for the late, go-ahead goal.

“That was probably one of my biggest goals,” Welch admitted, despite not wanting to take credit for it over anyone else involved in the play. “Hockey’s about momentum, and we were getting momentum from Eddie Quagliata’s first goal and (John Olen’s) goal to tie it. It definitely turned the tables.”

While it turned the tables in the game — which the Illini held on to win 4-3 — it also may have helped turn the tables on the Illini’s season. With just a few weeks left before the final ACHA rankings come out for the season, No. 20 Illinois has been on the bubble and in need of a big win to help solidify a spot in the national tournament. A 4-3 win over the No. 4 ranked team in the nation did just that.

Standing at 6-foot-2, Welch is the tallest player on the Illini roster. However, he models his game after two shorter, speedier forwards: Patrick Kane and Sidney Crosby. Welch manages to bring a skill set to the ice that most players his size wouldn’t be able to. It’s an all-around skill set of size, speed and stick-handling that Illini head coach Nick Fabbrini has taken notice of. He’s put Welch in front of the net to create more traffic for the team’s offense.

“He really uses his size, and I think it’s kind of shown this year with all the goals he’s popped in, especially in front of the net as you saw this weekend against Ohio,” senior John Scully said. “He’s a hard-nose working kid. (He produces) a lot of traffic which we need in front. He’s got a great body and uses it pretty well.”

Welch started learning how to skate at the age of 3 when, instead of taking him to day care, his mother put him out on the ice while she went to work at the local aerobics center.

“It was definitely a huge part of my life,” Welch said. “Everyone says the hockey world’s so different and that you meet all these people that you’re friends with for the rest of your life.”

Welch is still friends with guys he played hockey with when he was younger, including Jacob Matysiak, a junior who was on the Highland Park Falcons with Welch in high school. Welch helped recruit Matysiak to the University and now lives with him in an apartment with Nick Clarke and Evans.

“This team is a family,” Welch said. “We call each other our brothers, and we have each others’ backs. I’d do anything for any of the guys on this team, and I know they’d do anything for me too.”

That tight bond off the ice has started to help the Illini’s play on the ice, as they’ve come together to win three of their last four games.

“We’ve all been on the same page,” Scully said. “A weekend like Ohio really kind of highlights the importance of that when you’ve got every kid in the lineup working hard and pulling out a win like that.”

Scully said the 4-3 win over No. 4 Ohio was one of the biggest games the seniors have ever played, coming back from a 3-1 deficit late in the third period and pulling out a victory in one of the ACHA’s toughest arenas at the Bird Arena in Athens.

“Our leadership’s been big this year,” said Welch, an assistant captain on the team who is also taking a minor in agricultural leadership education. “It’s really big that our leaders stepped up this weekend, because we’re in desperation mode, and we’ve been there before.”

Three of the five Illini goals this weekend came off senior sticks, with the other two coming from Olen. 

“Everyone’s coming together great,” Welch said. “We’re all rolling and the momentum’s on our side now. We’ve been telling the guys that all year, that we haven’t been getting the bounces in the beginning of the season and now we are, so it’s not too late.”

With the three series left against ACHA Division I opponents, including two games against the defending national champions Minot State this weekend, the Illini are looking to make their mark and earn a spot in the national tournament. 

But more importantly, Welch is looking to leave his mark on the program.

“I’m here to win a national championship,” Welch said. “My freshman year, we didn’t even make it to the tournament. This year, being in desperation mode, we know what that feels like sitting at home and watching the results of the games. It’s not fun. It’s win or go home.”

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