Illini seniors forced to miss home opener

The Illini hockey team is looking for a pair of wins during its home-opening series this weekend, but for two seniors, they just wish they could be on the ice.

Captain Austin Bostock and assistant captain Mike Evans will be watching from the stands during the team’s home opener against Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, both dealing with shoulder injuries that will keep them off the ice for at least the next three weeks.

Evans has been out with a right shoulder injury after suffering a nasty fall on summer vacation, while Bostock’s absence came expected, as he recovers from surgery on his torn rotator cuff — an injury he played through all of last season.

Bostock tallied 39 points with virtually one shoulder, finishing last season as the team’s second-highest goal scorer, while Evans added eight goals and 20 assists of his own.

Spending three days per week in physical therapy and every chance he gets exercising to stay in shape, Bostock is determined to rejoin his team as quickly as he can.

“I’m doing everything I can that my body will allow me to,” Bostock said. “The guys know that if I could be out there, I would be taking those hits with them.”

Evans said he hopes to be back in October, but in the mean time he can’t lead by example on the ice in the way he wants.

Heading into the regular season without the team’s leaders isn’t ideal, but has proven to be manageable thus far with an impressive rookie class, head coach Nick Fabbrini said.

“We have a pretty talented group of guys,” Fabbrini said. “It’s nice to see production from other guys, instead of just the usual top guys.”

Sophomore forward Matt Johnson will also miss this weekend’s homestand after suffering a shoulder injury last Saturday during the Illini’s 9-4 victory over Northern Illinois, while sophomore Matt Flosi will join Bostock and Evans in the crowd for Friday night’s game after the league slapped him with a one-game suspension for fighting.

With a shortened bench, the Illini will welcome a Salukis team they were able to beat twice at home last season and will look to repeat that effort, but must rely on the team’s underclassmen.

Freshman winger Josh Belmont had two goals in last Friday’s 4-2 victory over the Springfield Jr. Blues, while sophomore Daniel Kerr added two goals and an assist against Northern Illinois — matching his goal total from all of last season.

“The younger guys from last year who didn’t really produce as much started producing this weekend,” Bostock said. “It was really nice to see those younger guys netting a few goals and really stepping up with the vacancy of me and the other injuries that we have.”

But while Bostock watches his young teammates on the ice, the captain realizes it will still be a few weeks before he can skate too — a bitter reality the captain said has been tough to swallow.

“It’s very tough watching from the stands,” Bostock said. “It’s harder than I expected it to be. Especially as a senior and this being my last year, it’s definitely a lot harder than I expected it to be on the sidelines.”

For senior goaltender Nick Clarke, his final home opener can’t come soon enough.

Last season, the second team All-American played the most minutes of any player in the nation and he said he’s excited to get back out on the ice for his final season, even though it comes bittersweet.

“It’s an unreal feeling playing here,” Clarke said. “I try not to think about it being my last year, but it’s definitely in the back of my mind and I try to keep that in mind and go into every game knowing next year’s not going to be there, so I might as well go in now and do what I can.”

Like Clarke, Bostock appreciates the opportunity to play in front of the Illini crowd and hopes his young Illini teammates cherish every home game.

“With so many new guys on the roster, this weekend is going to be really special,” Bostock said. “I feel blessed to play in front of this amazing crowd every single weekend, so I hope they feel the same way on Friday night.”

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