Illini hockey team gears up for Ohio

By Daniel Dexter

For head coach Nick Fabbrini, this weekend is about more than just getting a win. It’s about bragging rights.

The Illinois hockey team will take on Ohio at the Illinois Ice Arena this weekend. This will be the team’s first series against a CSCHL opponent, which has enhanced the intensity of the entire team.

“I’m a little bit more focused this week than I have been to this point in the season,” Fabbrini said. “Ohio, for me, is our biggest rival … I think we are going to be ready. The players get pumped to play Ohio too. I think they get some of that from me. We have played great games against them the last two years, both here and there.”

The Bobcats will be different this weekend than in years past because of their new coach, Sean Hogan, who recently helped coach Arizona back to prominence. Hogan has led Ohio to an 8-1-1 record this season, and in the most recent ACHA poll, Ohio was ranked 8th, five spots ahead of Illinois.

Despite the coaching change, Fabbrini still expects Ohio to be his team’s toughest challenge thus far, especially for the Illini offense. According to Fabbrini, Ohio has always had a strong defense, and he expects the games to be low scoring.

“I know that they have six or seven defensemen who are all very talented both offensively and defensively,” Fabbrini said. “They mirror us in a lot of ways in the way they play defensively, especially on the penalty kill. They like to go high pressure. They had a good hard-nosed defensive identity in the past.”

Illinois plans to counter the Bobcats’ defensive presence with its speed. Fabbrini said the key will be to wear down their defenders by going at them the whole game.

Ohio also plays on a smaller than regulation size ice, which gives the team’s defensemen an advantage when contributing on offense. That advantage is taken away on Illinois’ larger-than-regulation ice that Fabbrini said is about double the size of Ohio’s.

Illinois has also been working on perfecting its special teams play. Fabbrini said the team did outstanding this past weekend on the penalty kill, but it still needs to improve on the power play in terms of moving the puck around. Special teams is one of the areas Fabbrini believes can give the Illini an advantage over opponents moving forward.

Injuries and suspensions, however, will hurt the team this weekend. The Illini will be without their leader in points, John Olen, for Friday’s game, after he was suspended for a fight in the Saturday game against Michigan-Dearborn.

Fabbrini is not making any excuses for the team. He is approaching this weekend with a “next man up mentality” and expects all of the players to step up their games moving forward.

Defenseman Austin Zima returned from his head injury last weekend and made an immediate impact by scoring a goal during the Illini’s comeback against the Wolverines. He and the rest of the team are increasing their intensity for this series, and he believes the Illini are capable of making a statement this weekend.

“When it’s an opponent like Ohio, there is always a little more grit in your stick,” Zima said. “We know how big these games are, not only in terms of showing the conference who we are, but we also want to send a message to the whole league.”

Daniel can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @ddexter23.