Power-play chances still haunting Illini hockey

The importance of last weekend’s series against Iowa State was not something lost on any of the Illinois hockey players. Knowing they had a tall task at hand, particularly with the Cyclones coming off of two conference losses to Kent State, the Illini knew they would have to dig deep and come out strong against a hungry Iowa State squad.

Head coach Chad Cassel had stressed that the special teams would be the difference and that both the power play and penalty kill would have to be strong.

But only half the unit lived up to the challenge.

While discipline was a non-issue, as the Illini only racked up 12 penalty minutes on the weekend, making the Cyclones pay for their own mistakes proved to be the challenge once again.

Illinois went 2-for-5 on the power-play in Friday’s game, burying the chances when needed to seal the victory, but the struggles Saturday might have been the difference between coming away with the sweep and the split they ultimately had to settle for.

“We had a hard time adjusting to the rink,” forward Tim Gilbert said following the loss. “Our power-play struggled a bit and we couldn’t get anything going all night. It was an up-and-down weekend.”

The Illini went 1-for-7 on the power-play in Saturday’s loss, failing to convert until the outcome was decided.

“The locker room is a little disappointed,” Gilbert said. “At times it didn’t feel like we were in the game.”

Wake-up call

The problems the team had weren’t just technical ones. The lack of effort Saturday went hand-in-hand with the inability to finish scoring chances.

Perhaps getting too comfortable following Friday’s win, as captain Pierce Butler put it, the lack of intensity was seen all over the ice.

On their way to being outshot 79-50 on the weekend, the Illini couldn’t catch a break in any phase of the game.

“The effort wasn’t there,” said forward JJ Heredia, the lone Illini scorer in Saturday’s game.

“I think we shy away from hits a little. We got to get into it a little bit quicker, get the puck deep and bear down sooner.”

The slow starts have been a problem all season for the Illini (9-3, 3-3).

While their skill and speed has made up for the slow starts against weaker opponents thus far, the problem finally caught up to them this past weekend.

“Friday, we came out with more of a purpose, and Saturday we just came out flat,” Butler said.

“I think it carried over into the rest of the game.

“We lost a lot of the face-offs and in terms of getting it out of our own zone, we were turning the puck over too much. We haven’t been a first-period team this year.”

The bailout plan

Once again the goaltending proved to be the area that kept Illinois on life support.

While the Illini offense stalled, the goalie tandem of DJ Kohler and Mike Burda did its best to make sure the Cyclones offense didn’t fare much better.

Kohler got the nod for Friday’s game and made 33 saves in the 3-2 win.

The following night, Burda stopped 44 of the 48 shots that came his way. Not much stock can be put in those four goals, either.

Among the quartet was a pair that took bad bounces off the skates of Illini defensemen.

Heredia acknowledged that the attack didn’t hold up its end of the bargain for Burda, but nevertheless, both goalies once again fought to keep the Illini in the games.