Illinois hockey looks inward to continue success

The attitude in the Illinois hockey team’s locker room Friday night was almost as cold as the squad’s offense, as the team suffered its first shutout all year in a 2-0 loss to No. 16 Kent State.

“It was just a gutless performance,” Illini captain Pierce Butler said. “We lost two to nothing, and we’ve never been shut out at home. I’ve never lost to Kent State at home, and that’s something that some of the seniors, including myself, wanted to be remembered by. That kind of stung a nerve for a lot of us.”

The rout drove head coach Chad Cassel to call a team meeting before Saturday’s game to straighten out the previous game’s shortcomings.

“We talked a lot about how we need contributions from our older guys, our senior leaders,” assistant coach Darin Trulock said.

The talk must have lit a fire under the Illini, as a resurgent offense carried the No. 2 Illini to a 7-5 victory on Saturday. Four of Illinois’ goals came in the third period, and JJ Heredia had a hat trick and an assist.

“We just really took it to heart,” Heredia said. “I don’t think we’ve ever lost to Kent State at home, and we took it personally. We just came out with a ton of energy. It was tough because, throughout my career, I don’t think we’ve lost very much at home. We just came out ready to play.”

Illinois (17-4) was 3-for-4 on power-play opportunities, while Kent State was just 1-for-6.

“After that game, we kind of just looked at ourselves in the mirror because you can’t lose those kinds of games at home,” forward Andrew Cardona said. “It’s something to go into the break with. We got a win, and we look forward to coming back after break against Eastern (Michigan) and getting things done against them.”

Until then, the Illini will go their separate ways. While many players, especially the injured Matt Jennings, claimed their primary objective during winter break will be to gain some rest, the entire team is intent on staying active.

“I have some old coaches that have some teams that are still coaching, so they are always more than happy to let me help them either coach or put my full equipment on and keep skating,” Heredia said. “Also, one of the teams has an alumni game, so I’ll get to see some of the guys I used to skate with before.”

While Heredia is working out on the ice, senior forward Tom Connell will be taking a more unorthodox approach to his break fitness.

“I’m going to go to Colorado and go skiing for a few days,” Connell said. “It’s usually a pretty good leg workout even in itself.”

As Connell hits the slopes, there is something to be said for Cardona’s workout plan. The sophomore intends to go home this holiday season and play on the same ponds where he learned the game.

“There’s a pond right by my house, it’s a lot of fun,” Cardona said. “I have some buddies from around my neighborhood that play hockey, and I grew up with these kids playing hockey all the time. A lot of my friends are trying to learn how to play, so I’m going to get out, have some fun and try and teach them.”