Hockey ends regular season with 2-game sweep of Eagles

It was an emotional night when the final buzzer sounded in a 4-3 victory over Eastern Michigan on Saturday night. It would be the last time head coach Chad Cassel took the bench, and 10 seniors would skate on the ice of the Big Pond for the final time wearing orange and blue.

The victories over Eastern Michigan capped the Illini’s season at 16-16-1 and marked the final series of the season before the ACHA tournament. The Illini found themselves on the better end in both games, winning 10-0 on Friday night in addition to a much tighter 4-3 win Saturday.

The Illini had no trouble against the Eagles on Friday, cruising to a 10-0 victory in front of a packed house. Senior forward Andrew Cardona successfully recorded a hat trick, the last goals he’ll score at the Big Pond. Sophomore Nick Clarke and freshman Jacob Lubben put in a combined effort in goal to record the shutout.

Six seniors were able to put themselves on the score sheet during the following night’s 4-3 senior night victory. Defenseman Justin Wirt opened things up by scoring an early first period power play goal, forwards Mike McBride and Joe Sullivan added goals to give senior goalie Dan Rooney an early cushion.

“I haven’t come by many goals in my career, so it was pretty nice to get one on my last time on the home ice,” Wirt said. “So it was pretty special.”

The final home sweep would be the last of many that came during Cassel’s coaching career. Cassel ended his 15-year career with a combined record of 381-141-16, including 14 consecutive ACHA tournament appearances and nine final four appearances. Additionally, he led the 2007-08 team to both the CSCHL and ACHA championships, finishing the season perfect at 38-0-0, the first team in ACHA history to do so.

“This rink is a special place, and I had a lot of fun here as a player and it’s been great coaching here, I’m definitely going to miss it,” Cassel said. “It’s definitely going to be different showing up to the rink and not coaching, but I’m excited and looking forward to spending more time with my family on weekends and doing different things.”

Cassel and the Illini go into the ACHA tournament facing stiff competition in the Ohio Bobcats. The Bobcats are ranked No. 6 in the country with a record of 26-12-1. The Illini were not able to notch a victory during the teams’ two-game series in early January, losing the games 1-4 and 1-5.

Cassel is confident that his team can accomplish a lot if fully healthy.

“Ohio is a good team, they’re very well-coached, they’re disciplined, you know, and when we’re healthy we think we have as good of a chance as anybody,” he said. “We got great individual efforts from guys like Welch and McBride, now we just got to get that chemistry going and hopefully be rolling heading into next week.”