Illini hockey underachieved throughout 2015-16 season

The Illinois hockey team seemed to have a stacked team on paper. Senior captain John Olen was returning for his final season at Illinois, where he has been labeled one of the best players in the history of the program. Sophomore forwards James McGing and Eric Cruickshank were poised to lead the scoring, and John Olen’s younger brother, Joe Olen, would be holding down the opposing offenses in the goal.

But things turned south early, after an injury to John Olen in October left the Illini shorthanded for over a month. Olen returned to the ice as expected, but he said in February the injury loomed longer than he and the team expected.

“It still bothers me every once in awhile, but it’s definitely a whole lot better,” Olen said. “I think taking the break for Christmas was where I had the transition where I felt like I was more of myself.”

Olen recovered to show glimpses of his former self, including a hat trick during his final home series, but he didn’t have the same impact as in previous years. The rest of the Illinois standouts played up to potential this year, with McGing leading the team in points and Cruickshank following in second with 49 and 39, respectively. Joe Olen held strong in the goal, allowing only 2.63 goals a game.

Those stats never led to numbers on the ice fans have become used to from the Illini. Illinois finished the season with a 20-15-3 record, a first round exit in the CSCHL conference tournament and a first round departure at the ACHA national tournament to end the year. After its upset loss to Syracuse at nationals, the team fell to No. 17 in the ACHA poll, the worst of any CSCHL team.

Despite not performing as a team across the whole year, there were some standout moments from the Illini, with the most prominent coming on Jan. 29. Illinois upset the No. 1 team in the ACHA – the Lindenwood Lions – at home by a score of 4-2 in front of a packed house. Senior Kyle Varzino was the unlikely star of the night, scoring two goals, including an empty-netter to close out the win.

To finish out the year, Illinois did leave its mark all over the individual conference awards. Goalie Joe Olen received the CSCHL MVP for keeping the Illini alive all season, despite at times poor offensive production. McGing joined Olen on the all-conference first team. McGing led the team with 49 points and 30 assists this season, which were also the highest totals in the conference play.

Bursting onto the scene this year for Illinois was freshman Tyler Opilka who made the all-conference defensive and all-rookie team.

The year was not what many planned for the Illini hockey team, but regardless, the team had to say goodbye to five seniors including Olen, who said he wasn’t ready for playing his last game at Illinois.

“It’s just a surreal experience hearing that crowd roar for the last time.”

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