Illini hockey prepares for CSCHL Tournament playoffs

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Ryan Ash

Freshman forward Zack Hayes skates down the rink while guiding the puck during the match against Robert Morris University on Saturday. The Illini won the Senior Night game 7-1.

By Kenny Kazarian, Staff Writer

The Illini will play their first postseason game on Saturday in the Central States Collegiate Hockey League tournament playoffs against Ohio University in Champaign at 7:30 p.m. This tournament is crucial for Illinois, as the winner gets an automatic bid to the American Collegiate Hockey Association Division I national tournament.

The tournament kicks off Friday with a game between Iowa State and Robert Morris. The winner of this game will play the top team in the conference, Lindenwood, on Saturday afternoon.

The Illini are coming off a dominating weekend at home. They ended February and their regular season on a good note, beating Robert Morris 6-0 and 7-1 in the first and second games of the series, respectively. A fruitful weekend helps to boost morale, but Illinois is turning its sights toward its contest against Ohio.

“We have won six straight and are feeling great heading into the playoffs, especially since we are playing our biggest rival Ohio University,” said senior Neil Novosel. “Consistency is the key to our success, and we need to be ready to go for a full 60 minutes each night.”

Illinois and Ohio played each other four times so far this season, with Ohio leading the series 3-1, and one of the games going to overtime. The teams played each other tightly all year, and the goal differential after the four games sits at only two.

One advantage the Illini have, however, is the tournament taking place at their home rink. The team has played well in front of a loyal home crowd that continues to show support for the hockey program. Avoiding travel could also assist in Illinois vying for the CSCHL tournament title.

“Playing at home for conference playoffs is really special because of our fan base and our home-ice advantage due to our speed and the large ice surface,” Novosel said. “Senior night here was a great showing in the stands, and we are hoping to get a similar crowd this weekend. We would love to see some rowdy students celebrating unofficial at the (Illinois Ice Arena).”

The team will have its hands full even if it beats No. 4-ranked Ohio Saturday night. Illinois would likely play No. 3 Lindenwood unless the Illini are upset Saturday afternoon by the winner of the Robert Morris and Iowa State game Friday.

The CSCHL tournament could provide a spark before the team heads down to Texas on March 20 for the larger and more coveted ACHA National Tournament. The ACHA tournament will feature more than 72 teams from all the different divisions, both men’s and women’s.

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