Illini hockey victorious in opening weekend

Illinois is hoping for an ACHA National Championship this season, and the team got off to the right start this weekend.

The Illini won their first two games of the season, defeating the Springfield Jr. Blues 4-2 on Friday night and the Northern Illinois Huskies 9-4 on Saturday.

Coach Nick Fabbrini said the team was using the nonconference games as exhibitions to help finalize the lineup and get the freshmen some collegiate ice-time.

The Illini freshmen seemed more than comfortable Friday night, accounting for three of the team’s four goals — including two from forward Josh Belmont.

Illinois took an early 1-0 lead into the locker room after a first period goal from last year’s top-goal scorer, John Olen. But the Jr. Blues’ Davis DeKorte and Jack Sloan scored two quick goals to put Springfield up 2-1 at the start of the second period.

The Illini grabbed the momentum back with goals from Belmont’s freshman winger Matt Flosi, taking the lead 3-2. Belmont was relieved to get his first collegiate goal.

“I was a little bit worried about my goal scoring,” Belmont said. “I wanted to get that monkey off of my back early and I was able to do that, so it was a huge confidence boost for me.”

Belmont was able to boost that confidence further by adding another goal in the third period to cap off Illinois’ 4-2 victory over Springfield.

“It was really good to beat a (North American Hockey League) team,” Belmont said. “They think they’re a lot better than us, so it’s really good to throw it in their face.”

Belmont said there was a lot of trash-talking on the ice after the Jr. Blues took a 2-1 lead early in the second, but second-team All-American goaltender Nick Clarke said he was confident the Illini offense would regain the lead after the two unanswered Springfield goals.

“I had the boys to pick me up and get the lead back, and sure enough they did,” Clarke said. “All the freshmen and all the rookies stepped up and no one missed a beat. It looked like we had been playing together for years.”

The Illini rookies continued to impress Fabbrini during Saturday’s 9-4 victory over the Huskies, while first-year player Joe Olen earned his first victory between the pipes.

“It might not look like he had a great game on the score sheet, but I thought that he played very well for us,” Fabbrini said of his young netminder. “He made some nice saves and it’s been a while since he’s played. He was disappointed after the game, but I told him that there was no reason to be down. The goals he let up were ones he didn’t have a chance on.”

Illinois grabbed an early 2-0 lead after sophomore Daniel Kerr and freshman Austin Zima netted a couple quick goals in the first period.

The Huskies’ Danny Zalesky cut the Illini lead in half with a goal at 8:36 in the first, but senior forward Eddie Quagliata killed the Huskies’ momentum with a late first period goal, putting the Illini up 3-1.

The Illini added a shorthanded goal, while freshman Cody von Rueden and senior John Scully scored their first goals of the season after Northern squeaked its second past Joe Olen, giving the Illini a 6-2 lead — chasing the Huskies’ starting goaltender Alex Hare from the game.

Northern Illinois’ Nick Leon scored twice for the Huskies in the third, but the Illini added three goals of their own, capping off a 9-4 victory.

Kerr scored twice Saturday, matching his goal total from last season.

The line of Daniel Kerr, John Scully and Eddie Quagliata accounted for 11 Illini points for the weekend, something Fabbrini simply called “outstanding”.

Illinois outshot the Huskies 52-25 and dominated the game offensively, causing tensions to boil over in the second period when three players were ejected for fighting majors.

Northern Illinois’ Jake Juach was tossed from the game, in addition to sophomore John Olen and Matt Flosi for the Illini. Flosi will face a one-game suspension and will be forced to miss Illinois’ home opener against Southern Illinois-Edwardsville on Friday night.

Sophomore winger Matt Johnson will also miss Friday’s home opener after being injured during Saturday’s game, adding another player to the team’s long list of injuries.

“Other guys are just going to have to step up on the first weekend,” Fabbrini said. “It’s unfortunate we have so many guys out with injuries already, but it gives the other guys a chance to earn a spot in the lineup.”

Fabbrini was disappointed in the team’s defense Saturday and said they will work on it during practice this week. But overall he was proud of the team’s success in its first weekend on the ice.

“This weekend was good for us,” Fabbrini said. “We learned what we’re good at, what we need to work on and what we need to do to be better.”

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