Illinois hockey struggles with consistency, tough schedule

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Illinois hockey struggles with consistency, tough schedule

Coach Nick Fabbrini talks to his team during a break in the 2nd period in a 6-3 win against Indiana Saturday night at the Ice Arena.

Coach Nick Fabbrini talks to his team during a break in the 2nd period in a 6-3 win against Indiana Saturday night at the Ice Arena.

Coach Nick Fabbrini talks to his team during a break in the 2nd period in a 6-3 win against Indiana Saturday night at the Ice Arena.

Coach Nick Fabbrini talks to his team during a break in the 2nd period in a 6-3 win against Indiana Saturday night at the Ice Arena.

By Sean Neumann

The 2013-14 Illini hockey season had high expectations for a team that struggled to find consistency throughout the year. 

Nick Fabbrini’s second year as head coach saw his team end the season 22-18-2 after getting knocked out in the second round of the ACHA tournament and balancing one of the toughest schedules in the nation. The Illini were ranked as high as No. 4 in the nation near the start of the season but ended the season at No. 18 after falling out of the top-25 ranking late in the year.

Illinois went 7-20 in 27 games against top-25 opponents, which made up more than half of its schedule.

The team also had trouble in CSCHL play, arguably the league’s best conference in 2013-14, which sent five of its six teams to the ACHA national tournament with Robert Morris losing to Arizona State in the national championship.

Illinois’ forwards battled all year with goal troubles, scoring two goals or less 18 times.

The largest momentum swings of the season came on a 2-1 road trip, taking wins from both No. 6 Oklahoma and No. 10 Central Oklahoma, then again at the end of the season after an emotional 4-3 overtime victory No. 4 Ohio, and then shutting out defending national champion Minot State 2-0 on the Big Pond the next weekend. The bright spots of the Illini hockey season shined but came sparingly.

Freshman defenseman Cody von Rueden made an impressive debut, leading the Illini with 38 points (10 goals, 28 assists) and making the ACHA’s Division-I all-rookie team. Von Rueden also had two goals in Illinois’ first-round upset over Arizona in the ACHA tournament — one of the season’s most memorable games. The freshman’s play on the ice and leadership off the ice, introducing the Compete for a Cure cause to the Illini hockey program, makes him a strong contender to take over with senior Austin Bostock’s leaving the role after graduation.

Despite the results, the Illini season was clouded with the sentiment of saying goodbye. 

Near the end of the season, freshman Matt Flosi recognized the emotions that await seniors across the ACHA, the majority of whom are playing the final games of their career.

“It’s really sad to see them go through this and know that in a few years I’m going to be going through the same thing,” Flosi said after the seniors’ final home game. “Especially with this group of seniors, because they happen to be my closest friends on the team.”

Seven seniors are leaving the team after graduation, including former second-team All-American goaltender Nick Clarke. Clarke posted a career-low 87.95 save percentage in 2013-14 with a 12-15-2 record behind a defense which was out-shot in most games throughout the season. Sophomore Joe Olen is likely to replace Clarke as the starting goaltender in 2014-15 after playing 656.77 minutes this season with a 7-3 record. 

Senior John Scully — who led the Illini with 24 goals and had 34 points, doubling his previous career-high — is also leaving his four-year career at Illinois behind. But Scully’s 2013-14 performance landed him a three-game contract with the Bloomington Thunder, a semi-professional team, less than a week after the ACHA season ended — briefly extending his hockey career.

“He came a long way this year,” Fabbrini said. “He grew a lot this year as a player and is absolutely capable at playing (on the professional) level so long as he keeps things simple.”

Illinois wasn’t able to capture the school’s third ACHA national championship, but to Fabbrini and the returning Illini players, the biggest loss of the 2013-14 may be the senior class.

“Our whole senior class, you can point to the contributions they’ve made to the program over the last four years that, both on and off the ice, are definitely going to be missed,” Fabbrini said. “It’s going to be an opportunity for some of the guys who have been here and seen what those guys have contributed to step up and hopefully we’ll have a good recruiting class of forwards next year to help fill the void.”

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