Physical play is key in Illini’s success

When the games become harder, so do the checks.

The No. 4 Illini hockey team’s season hangs in the balance over the next two months, and the big men are well aware that their physical presence is needed on the ice.

In first two weekends of the season, head coach Nick Fabbrini was disappointed with the way the Illini came out in the first period and warned that when their competition grew tougher, the margin for error would grow smaller.

The Illini have found themselves thrown to the wolves, playing five top-10 ACHA teams in a row and having been swept at home in their first CSCHL conference matchups this weekend against No. 8 Iowa State, a weekend that Fabbrini called embarrassing.

The fuel is there and the Illini’s enforcers are ready to start the fire early in the game instead of too late.

“A good way to get everyone into the game is to play physical,” senior Eddie Quagliata said. “We always try to get that part of our game going, because it really does help create energy for everyone and we play a lot harder.”

This proved to be true for the Illini during their 4-3 shootout victory over Michigan State two weeks ago.

Fabbrini and his players said they came out flat in the first period, which led to a Spartans goal in the first period, and the Illini found themselves down after the first period. It was when Quagliata’s physical play exploded in the second period that the Illini began mounting a comeback, which they capped off in the shootout after tying the game on a power play goal with under three minutes remaining in regulation.

Senior Kevin Chowaniec said he’s talked with Quagliata about elevating their physical play and has tried modeling his physicality off other antagonizing players like senior John Scully.

“We’re trying to get physical play going with Scully,” Chowaniec said. “I just try to play like him. He’s always working his butt off.”

But for some new players on the team, the ACHA’s strict penalties on hockey’s most common method of physical play has them still getting used to playing under a new rulebook.

While players in the NHL and junior leagues settle disputes with fists, the ACHA heavily enforces suspensions against players who drop the gloves to fight — something freshman defenseman Cody von Rueden isn’t yet comfortable with after playing five seasons at the junior level.

“It’s different for me,” von Rueden said. “I’m used to a five-minute penalty if you drop the gloves, so it’s definitely hard to get used to. (In the ACHA), if you drop the gloves, your helmet’s off and you start squaring up for a fight, you’re going to be in big trouble.”

Von Rueden said opposing teams know who the Illini’s top guys are, and they try to coax them into penalties during scrums and through big hits.

It’s the enforcer’s job to defend the team’s top guys and keep them out of fights, according to von Rueden, such was the case when he jumped into a scrum during the Illini’s 7-4 victory over Michigan State to stand up for freshman winger Eric Saulters.

“Other teams know who our team’s top players are, and we can’t have our top guys fall into that trap,” Von Rueden said. “I like to step in there, settle things out and grab a guy and get them off him.”

Quagliata said he gets under the opposing team’s skin through antagonizing players while the referee’s focus is elsewhere.

“Sometimes when the ref isn’t really looking, you can give him a little bit and then they catch the retaliation,” Quagliata said with a smirk. “It’s part of the game and you have to pick your time to do it. You’ve got to be careful, though, because it could also turn on you.”

The Illini have found themselves on the wrong end of those situations far too often this season, according to Fabbrini and last weekend against Iowa State, the team’s penalties began costing them goals.

The Illini allowed three power play goals, not including two that were waved off. Fabbrini called the Illini special teams a “work in progress” and is an integral part of the team’s game, needing to be quickly fixed before facing four more top-10 teams over the next month, starting with No. 2 Arizona State this weekend in Chicago.

“We have really important games coming up,” von Rueden said. “The less we stay out of the box, the better we are.”

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