Illinois hockey completes sweep of Illinois State

By Ethan Swanson

Sitting a single point outside the 20 qualifying spots for the ACHA national tournament in March, Illinois (18-13-3) needed to win – and win big – against in-state rival Illinois State (12-22-4) Saturday.

“There are three teams within a point ahead of us,” sophomore forward James Mcging said. “Goal differential is a big part of the ranking system. We had some bad losses early in the year, so putting up big numbers this weekend would hopefully be a tiebreaker if we move up.”

On Saturday, Illinois looked like a tournament team.

The Illini trounced the Redbirds 6-1, completing a two-game sweep after their 5-2 win Friday. The five-goal win was tied for the team’s second largest margin of victory this season and avenged the 7-1 defeat Illinois State handed Illinois in Bloomington, Illinois, on Oct. 31.

After the first period, there were no signs of a blowout. The game seemed more like a boxing match after the things got physical five minutes into play. The referees handed out 20 total penalty minutes in the first period, eight of which were credited to Illini skaters.

It was on a 5-on-3 power play that Illinois opened up the scoring half way through the period, with David Kellner sneaking the puck past a sprawled-out Illinois State goaltender with a second left on the power play.

Sophomore forward Chris Lozinak would light the lamp just three minutes later off a teammate’s rebound to give the Illini a 2-0 lead early.

“We did a great job keeping our composure,” head coach Nick Fabbrini said. “We have big games coming up this weekend and beyond that, so we stressed the importance of skating away from all that stuff and letting the scoreboard do the talking for us.”

A Redbird goal late in the first period would put the visiting team in striking distance entering the first intermission. When the puck dropped at the start of the second period, the Illini never looked back.

They tallied four goals in the 20 minute span and stifling Illinois State’s offense.

Kyle Varzino got things started for the Illini with a goal with 17 minutes left.

After an Illinois tripping penalty about half way through the period, Mcging got the crowd on their feet once again, deking the Rebird goalie on a shorthanded breakaway goal. Not even two minutes later, the sophomore netted another goal – going top-shelf on a feed from John Olen to give Illinois a commanding 5-1 lead.

“We did a great job getting pucks to the next,” Fabbrini said. “We had 45 shots (Friday) and about 40 tonight, when you those type of numbers you’re going to score to some goals with the talent we have.”

The exclamation point of the game came in the third period after a Redbird high-sticking penalty gave the Illini yet another power play.

While on the penalty kill, Illinois forced a turnover near center ice a got the puck to Mcging streaking toward the Illinois State goal.

This scenario ended much like the previous one, as Mcging’s wrist shot dribbled past the leg of the Redbird goalie, giving him a hat trick and Illinois its final goal.

The Illini don’t have much time to think about what their sweep of the Redbirds will do for them in the ACHA standings. This week, they will prepare for the CSCHL tournament in Ames, Iowa, starting Feb. 19 – another crucial opportunity for the Illini to boost their resume.

“It definitely feels good to beat ISU this way,” Mcging said. “But (Illinois State) is nowhere near the caliber of teams we’ll be playing next weekend. If we want to win the tournament, sweeping a team like this is expected of us.”

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