Illinois hockey splits weekend with rival Ohio

By Daniel Dexter

Senior Jon Langan always looks forward to playing Ohio.

With the score tied at 1-1 in the third period Friday, Langan scored the go-ahead goal for No. 11 Illinois en route to its 2-1 victory over the No. 5 Bobcats. For Langan, beating Illinois’ bitter rival is always a treat.

“The first time I went there my freshman year, I ended up getting kicked out of the first game we played them,” Langan said after the Friday night win. “Ever since then, they have probably been my favorite team to play. They are just a hard-working team, kind of like us. They’re gritty and like to be physical. For a guy like me, I love to play against teams like that. I have a lot of respect for them, but at the same time, I never ever want to lose to them.”

Unfortunately for Langan and the rest of the Illini, Ohio (9-2-1) came back to win the Saturday finale, 4-2, and split the series with the Illini.

Illinois (9-2-0) came into the Saturday game looking to improve upon Friday’s dismal shooting display. Illinois was outshot 44-12, but junior goalie Joe Olen saved 43 of those shots, marking his best game of the season.

Despite the victory Friday, head coach Nick Fabbrini thought his team played a better game on Saturday. The Illini improved their shooting margin, but were still outshot 36-29 in the second game.

The Bobcats scored two goals in the first period, but Illinois came back and tied the game at 2-2 by the beginning of the third. Ohio struck again just 48 seconds after the tying goal and sealed its victory with second unanswered goal.

Illinois attempted another comeback, but Ohio’s goalie Aaron Alkema prevented the Illini from converting their scoring chances late in the game.

“We created a lot of offensive opportunities all game long,” Fabbrini said after the Saturday loss. “We had good chances. A lot of good looks to score that hit off the post. In the third period, their goalie made an outstanding save on the goal that would have tied it. I think that whole game would have gone differently had that one went in.”

Emotions ran high on Saturday during the closing minutes of the game. A series of fights broke out in the final minutes of the game after it had already become clear that the Bobcats would win.

Freshman right wing James McGing said he was provoking Alkema throughout the game by ripping through the Ohio goal crease between periods. Alkema’s frustration eventually got the best of him, and when he blocked McGing in the back of the head, the Illini retaliated.

“It’s an emotional game. Emotions boil over,” Fabbrini said. “It was a hard fought weekend for both teams. I don’t think either one of us likes each other very much. It’s been like that since I played here (from 2004-2008). It’s a healthy rivalry, and after two hard fought games, sometimes that emotion boils over a little bit.”

Olen was given an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for his actions in the fighting, and because he left the bench, is suspended for the Illini’s next game.

Fabbrini said the team is still having a problem with penalties that it needs to get under control. Illinois collected 36 penalty minutes over the weekend, but was bolstered by its penalty kill. While Ohio scored two goals on the power play Saturday, the Bobcats didn’t score any on Friday, which Fabbrini believes was a major contributor to the Illinois victory.

The Illini were disappointed they were unable to finish the sweep of their rival, but McGing believes the team will eventually look back at this weekend positively.

“In the long run, we can probably look back and say it was a successful weekend,” McGing said. “Right now, it doesn’t feel that way. That’s the best team we’ve played so far. We saw what we can do, and we know what we need to improve on. I would say this will be a success in the long run.”

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