Freshmen lead the way for the Illinois hockey team

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Eric Cruikshank (15) faces off against Tobias Nasgarde (8) of Lindenwood during the game on February 7, 2015. The Illini lost 4-2.

By Daniel Dexter

Illinois hockey head coach Nick Fabbrini turned to freshmen Eric Cruickshank and James Mcging to secure the victory in a shootout against Lindenwood on Friday night.

The wingmen had earned Fabbrini’s trust this season with their play and they didn’t let him down.

It was Illinois’ third consecutive win, all against higher-ranked opponents, since team captain John Olen went on leave from the team to play at the World University Games in Granada, Spain. Despite losing the following night, Cruickshank and Mcging have overtaken Olen as the Illini’s first and second leading points scorers with 30 and 29 points, respectively.

While both players are impressed with the team’s recent success, neither was willing to pay too much attention to the stats.

“In the past, whenever I start looking at the stats, I begin thinking, ‘Oh, I have to get this many to get first on the team,’” Mcging said. “If I focus on the stats, I start thinking about the game as just getting points instead of winning.”

For both Mcging and Cruickshank, Illinois wasn’t their first choice of school. After high school, they decided to play on a junior hockey team for two years with the hope of getting noticed by a Division I team.

“Juniors wore me down a little bit,” said Cruickshank, who is from Vernon Hills, Illinois. “I then realized that Division I wasn’t going to be an option, so I decided that coming to Illinois was the best option from there.”

Their decisions paid off almost immediately — the two were among the leaders in points even before Olen left. However, the majority of their points were coming off assists, which were typically turned into goals by Olen.

It became evident to both players that they would need to take on a larger scoring role in the absence of the team captain. In the last two series, Cruickshank and Mcging have recorded seven and four of points, respectively.

“A lot of times, I’ll pass up a lot of opportunities because I know that the puck is in better hands if I give it to John,” said Mcging, originally from Chicago. “For at least these past few games, I felt like I have had to take a lot more chances for the team because we were missing a huge scoring factor.”

Fabbrini pointed out the particular skill set the two players have that makes them capable of putting points on the scoreboard. He described Mcging as playmaker, who is capable of creating a shot for both himself and his teammates. While he credited Cruickshank with a similar talent, Fabbrini said Cruickshank stands out as having one of the hardest shots on the team.

Both of their talents were on display in the shootout Friday against Lindenwood. Cruickshank tied the score for the Illini with a slapshot into the back of the net. The tying score set up Mcging to seal the victory and he took advantage of the opportunity. With a risky backhanded shot, Mcging hit the top-shelf of the net and gave the Illini the first victory of the series.

As the team celebrated after the game, Fabbrini joked that maybe it was better off without Olen. His hope, however, is that the two freshmen’s recent scoring surge will compliment Olen’s skill set even more as the team aims to compete for an ACHA championship in March.

“We have a good senior class that has shown guys what it takes to be competitive in our league, night-in and night-out,” Fabbrini said. “When we have the upperclassmen and lowerclassmen working together in that regard, we create a powerful team that people have been seeing lately.”

Daniel can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @ddexter23.