Illini look to make lineup adjustments during exhibition games

Illinois hockey’s first games might not count toward its conference record, but they still matter.

The Illini will hit the road this weekend, opening the season against the Springfield Jr. Blues on Friday night before facing Northern Illinois on Saturday afternoon.

With the Jr. Blues being a junior hockey team and the Huskies being a D-II squad, the Illini’s matchups this weekend are nonconference exhibition games.

In what can be viewed as a brief preseason, according to head coach Nick Fabbrini, the team is focusing on figuring out which lines skaters fit into and seeing what the Illini players can do in live-game situations.

“Everybody’s going to play this weekend,” Fabbrini said. “We’re still juggling lines and I would be shocked if the first set of lines we put together are the way that we end the year. It’s a long season.”

With a crop of new walk-ons and transfers, Friday night’s game against the Jr. Blues will be the Illini players’ first opportunity to impress Fabbrini on the ice.

“We’re still making decisions on what the lineup is going to look like on opening night,” Fabbrini said. “After we start playing, it’s going to be up to guys to make sure they stay in the lineup and the way these guys play this weekend is going to go a long way to determine our opening weekend lineup.”

Freshman defenseman Cody von Rueden has had Friday night’s game in Springfield circled on his calendar, having played the Jr. Blues all of last season at the junior level.

“I’ve been biting at the bit to get on the ice,” von Rueden said. “I’m excited to play my first college hockey game. I’ve been waiting a long time for it and I’m happy it’s finally here.”

Last season, the Illini split an opening weekend series with the Jr. Blues to start the season.

The Jr. Blues are already 3-0 on the year, with returning starters Trevor Stone scoring two goals and Mike Severson adding a goal and three assists in their games this past week.

After Friday night’s game, Illinois will head to the Darien Sportsplex in Darien, Ill., to take on the Huskies. Ten of the Huskies’ 11 top point leaders from the 2012-13 season graduated after last season, leaving senior forward Justin Rucinski as the only player returning to have had double-digit point production (19).

With Rucinski left to carry the Northern Illinois offense against a veteran Illini defense, senior goaltender Alex Hare (17-9-2 record in 2012-13) is the only other key player left returning for the Huskies on the ice this season.

But while Illinois’ exhibition game against the lower-tier D II squad could be an easy win, the game is of crucial importance to the Illini’s roster organization as the regular season awaits around the corner, especially with two captains Austin Bostock and Mike Evans sidelined with shoulder injuries.

Evans said the two senior leaders’ absence early on in the year won’t help the new players adjust, but it will give them a bigger opportunity to step up and prove themselves on the ice.

After just two weeks of practice, the young Illini players will see their first collegiate ice time this weekend, while Fabbrini and his staff focus on making last-minute adjustments before the regular season begins.

“We’re going to get out there and work out some of the kinks and things,” Fabbrini said. “You can’t really replicate game speed and intensity in practice, so I think the games this weekend will be a good test for us in that regard.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @Neumannthehuman.