Hockey team to take on NCAA opponent at the Big Pond

By Daniel Dexter

After two weeks of grueling battles against division opponents, the Illinois hockey team will return home to take on an unfamiliar foe this weekend.

NCAA Division III Aurora University will visit the Illinois Ice Arena for a two-game series against the Illini. Aurora is playing its first season in the NCAA after previously competing in the ACHA Division II.

Illinois head coach Nick Fabbrini said he doesn’t quite know what to expect from Aurora because it will have a very different team this year. Instead, Fabbrini will keep his focus on improving his team, which is on a three-game losing streak to CSCHL.

“We definitely have a lot of room for improvement, but for having such a young team, I think we have done okay for our first four division games,” Fabbrini said. “Everybody in here knows we can do better, so we are working our way towards that.”

One aspect of their game the Illini are looking to improve is their shot count. Illinois has been outshot in its last four games. Of those four games, Illinois won only one, in which it was outshout 44-12.

Fabbrini is addressing the problem from the offensive side of the ice. He has had his team work a lot more on finishing when taking both initial shots and on rebound opportunities.

“We are emphasizing getting pucks in the net every chance we get,” Fabbrini said. “Whether it’s on the rush or from bad angles, we want to make goalies try to make as many saves as possible.”

Center Josh Belmont said the team is facing similar issues as last season’s team, except last year, it took the team longer to overcome its issue. He believes that the team demonstrated that it can improve quickly in the second game of the Lindenwood series. Despite losing 2-1, the team did not make as many mistakes as it did in the series opener.

Another area of their game that the Illini will be looking to rapidly improve is their power play. The team has not had success in converting power play opportunities into goals, which has also been a contributing factor in their recent losses. Belmont said that it has been tough for the team to adjust to different styles of play from opposing teams on special teams, but the team has been making progress.

On Wednesday, Fabbrini dedicated the entire practice toward working on power play and penalty kill. He has been experimenting with different lines on the ice during special teams in an attempt to find one that clicks.

“It’s kind of a fluid thing. We have definitely had good looks on the power play,” Fabbrini said. “It hasn’t been for a lack of opportunities that we aren’t scoring goals. So we just have to find the right combination and work on finishing when we get chances.”

The team will be looking to prove itself this weekend against an NCAA opponent. Belmont, however, doesn’t expect the Spartans to be the team’s toughest competition this season because of how little time they had to put together a team of NCAA caliber. He is expecting the Illini to get back to their winning ways this weekend.

“I think we should run through Aurora, personally,” Belmont said. “I would be seriously impressed if they are putting out a team like Ohio. I have high hopes for this weekend. Plus, we need a turnaround. We can’t have another loss.”

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