Illini hockey hosts Spartans in season opener

Expect the Big Pond to be tightly packed come Friday night.

For the sixth straight year, Illinois will open its season at home against Big Ten rival Michigan State.

The Spartans have had little success in recent years against the Illini, losing nine of their last 10 games in the series. The Illini look to continue the trend under a new head coach and plethora of newcomers.

In addition to head coach Nick Fabbrini, 10 players will make their debut at the Illinois Ice Arena.

“Playing at the Big Pond for the first time is a feeling that’s hard to describe,” junior forward Austin Bostock said. “It’s something I’ve been looking forward to since our last game in March. The hometown crowd is really like the sixth man out on the ice.”

Despite the dominance, Fabbrini’s squad will not take anyone lightly.

“Traditionally, (Michigan State) is always a fast team, and they’ve got a couple of players who are skilled individuals,” Fabbrini said. “I’m expecting a pretty tough game for our opening weekend. They always seem to give us a hard time.”

Unlike previous years, the Illini can gauge specific areas they can improve on after facing the Springfield Jr. Blues in an exhibition series two weeks ago.

“We showed when we played against Springfield that we can play with some of the best teams out there,” Fabbrini said. “Springfield is one of the best teams we’ll play all year, and if our guys can stay within the confines of the system we’re playing in, I think we’ll be just fine.”

Fabbrini said the penalty kill was the Illini’s chink in their armor during the team’s series against Springfield. During the team’s weekend split, two of the seven goals against the Illini were scored during even-strength play. In addition to avoiding penalties, Fabbrini said, the team must work on defensive-zone coverage.

The Illini’s defense got much-needed depth with the addition of senior Anthony Carlsen and sophomore Kyle Clark. Coming into the season, senior defenseman Mike Evans was the only Illini with more than a year of college hockey experience.

Injuries have already affected the Illini. Sophomore forward Derek Schultz will miss a significant amount of time after suffering a torn meniscus. He is not expected to return until late November or early December.

Junior goalie Nick Clarke, who is expected to start most games, suffered “either a dislocated or broken pinky finger,” Fabbrini said. Clarke’s injury is considered day to day, and he might see ice against the Spartans..

Fabbrini said freshman goalie Mike Gordon will be the goalkeeper if Clarke can’t start Friday.

Expect the Illini to be one of the highest-scoring teams in the league this year, as leading scorers, such as senior forward Scott Barrera and Bostock — who combined for 57 points last season — will be accompanied by a mix of returning players and six newcomers.

_Blake can be reached at [email protected] and @BlakeP._