Illini penalty troubles cripple offensive production

Players in the penalty box can’t score goals, and the Illini hockey team has learned that lesson the hard way over the last two weekends.

Illinois (5-3-1) is on a four-game losing streak, during which it has been outscored 21-4 by opponents and has only scored one goal in the last 180 minutes of play.

The Illini have been shut out twice during the streak and were nearly blanked a third time but managed to score a late third-period goal on the power play of their 6-1 loss to No. 2 Arizona State on Saturday.

The team has yet to beat a Division-I ACHA opponent and is expected to drop again in the national rankings, one week after falling three spots following a pair of losses to No. 4 Iowa State.

“It’s time to bear down,” defenseman Cody von Rueden said. “If we want to be a top team in the country, we need to execute and do the little things right.”

The little things have resulted in big problems for the Illini. The team’s tendency to run into penalty trouble has forced it to play shorthanded for 78 minutes in the past four games — 18 minutes more than an entire game.

On Friday, the Illini allowed eight Arizona State goals, more than double the number they had let up in a game up to that point. Illinois also had 48 penalty minutes in the game.

“If you throw five guys out there against four, it’s tough to stop them every single time,” senior John Scully said. “Five-on-five, we’re a pretty good team and we can compete with anyone.”

Scully said erasing the team’s discipline problem is tough because it’s not something the players can work on together in practice.

“A lot of it’s mental preparation,” Scully said. “It’s not as much X’s and O’s. It’s a lot of compete level and things like that.”

During Monday’s practice, head coach Nick Fabbrini talked with the players about keeping their level of competition high for the entire game. Illinois had trouble starting games with intensity early on in the year, but now the team is dealing with keeping its energy up after the first period and ending games strong.

“Really, it’s one breakdown and then it’s in your net and it kind of switches the whole game around,” Scully said. “People say it all the time, ‘Oh, 60 minutes, 60 minutes,’ but that’s really what’s killing us right now, as much as you’d hate to admit it.”

The Illini power play has also severely struggled, only scoring once on nine power play opportunities against Arizona State this weekend.

“The only thing you can really do is spend time on it,” Fabbrini said after pausing to think how the Illini can fix their production on the power play.

Fabbrini said the Illini’s lack of production wasn’t an issue he foresaw coming into the season, but he is now forced to switch up lines in hopes of shaking life into the offense before this weekend’s series against No. 5 Robert Morris.

“We’ve got to figure something out,” Fabbrini said. “It’s tough to win hockey games if you’re not scoring at least three goals.”

And for Illinois, the balance between offensive production and defensive dominance just isn’t there. The team’s defense has given up goals in 18 of its last 19 periods of regulation, something the offense was able to cover up until finally running dry, scoring just one goal in its last three games.

“I think we’re too easy to play against at times,” Fabbrini said. “That comes back to being mentally prepared to play the same way for a full 60-minute game. Not when we feel like it.”

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