Illinois hockey knocked out of ACHA tournament

By Matt Gertsmeier

At the beginning of the season, the Illinois hockey team had a single goal in mind: Win the ACHA national championship.

Robert Morris erased any chance Illinois had at achieving that goal Friday when the Eagles beat the Illini 3-2 in the second round of the ACHA tournament in Strongsville, Ohio.

The 13th-seeded Illini won their first round game 4-1 against No. 20 John Carroll on Thursday night in what head coach Nick Fabbrini described as a poorly-played game by the Illini. Illinois scored three goals within two minutes of each other in the first period and goaltender Joe Olen recorded 28 saves on 29 shot attempts in the game.

However, the excitement following the Illini’s first-round win was short-lived.

Against conference opponent No. 4 Robert Morris, Illinois winger Eric Cruickshank scored both of the Illini’s two goals in an effort to advance to the quarterfinals. But a crucial penalty in the third period called against Illinois for too many men on the ice resulted in a Robert Morris powerplay goal that put the Eagles up 3-1.

Fabbrini thought the call was controversial and that early in the game there were a couple of times Robert Morris had too many men on the ice, but wasn’t penalized.

“We can’t afford mental mistakes like that in the tournament, and we got punished for it,” Fabbrini said. “That was a good break for them and really unfortunate for us.”

Fabbrini said Illinois’ loss to Robert Morris wasn’t due to a lack of effort — he said the puck just didn’t bounce Illinois’ way.

Despite Friday’s loss, Fabbrini drew some positives from the tournament. He said it was good for Illinois to be selected for the tournament and especially important for the team’s younger players to get ACHA tournament experience. Six freshmen and five sophomores played in Illinois’ loss.

But for Illinois’ six active seniors, Friday signified the end of their collegiate careers, and Fabbrini said players were understandably emotional after the game.

“It’s tough,” Fabbrini said. “Even the younger guys realized what we had to build and do this year and understanding that this was really the last time we’re going to be together as a group.”

Although this group of Illini failed to win the ACHA tournament, Cruickshank said he still views this as a successful season. He said the team came together and the players trusted in one another — Fabbrini considered it one of the best groups he has coached in his six seasons at Illinois.

While Illinois has packed up and is back home, the ACHA tournament continues with semifinals Monday and the championship game Tuesday. Four of the eight teams in the quarterfinals represent the CSCHL.

But Illinois, the only CSCHL team that failed to make the quarterfinals, expects to be in the ACHA tournament next season, and the goal remains the same: Win the national championship.

“It’s the goal every year, and we’re going to keep building on that,” Cruickshank said. “I think every year we have a good shot.”

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