In the past three previous seasons, the University of Illinois’ Division I ACHA men’s hockey club had not received the honor of being ranked in the top ten of the weekly league rankings once.
In 2017-18, that honor has become a regularity.
Out of the past ten weeks, the Illini (15-6-1) have found themselves at No. 10 or higher; they’ve been locked in at No. 9 for six straight weeks. This weekend, they’re determine to rise up the ladder facing a two-game series at home in Champaign against the No. 15 University of Jamestown Jimmies (15-11-1).
It’s always noticeable when a player has gone long stretches without a goal. The grip around their sticks grows tighter with every scoring opportunity unable to be finished off. Their frustration often lingers; they send their heads up to the sky as if to pray to the hockey gods for one small favor.
Sophomore forward Charley Salk endured all of that, but was finally rewarded last weekend against Rochester College. Salk had not scored a regular-season goal against Division I opponents since November 5th, 2016 (he notched a hat trick against D2 Augustana College last March and scored in the Illini’s first postseason game last spring). After burying a rebound chance during Friday’s 7-0 rout of the Warriors, he continued his offensive success the following night.
The St. Charles native opened the scoring only 39 seconds into the game and added another tally at the 14:55 mark of the first period. He led the team with five points on the weekend, tied with fellow sophomore Bobby Ernsting.
For senior defenseman Joey Caprio, he had not lit the lamp wearing the orange and blue in almost 400 consecutive days heading into last Saturday. Following Salk’s pair of goals, Caprio sniped one of his own in the opening frame, prompting senior forward Grant Stueve to grab the puck from the official for safe-keeping as a memento.
It was the 23-year-old blueliner’s first goal since December of 2016. Caprio dismissed the amount of time separating the last two times he found the back of the net. “We didn’t play half the time,” he remarked. “We only play two games a week!” Senior and starting goaltender David Heflin weighed in: “Congratulations, I couldn’t be more happy.”
Playful jokes aside, it was a relief for Caprio to find offensive success following what has been a solid defensive campaign this season. “It felt good,” Caprio said. “I’ve been pressing a bit and it feels really good to get the monkey off my back.”
While Illinois has boasted a men’s ice hockey team on campus since the 1930s, Jamestown is only in their second season as a program. Despite their recent emergence, the Jimmies made their presence in the ACHA quickly felt, going 19-10-3 in the 2016-17 regular season.
They began the year ranked at No. 17 and are quietly ascending, putting themselves in a great position to soar even higher with a solid outing against Illinois this weekend in their first matchup in the history of the two clubs. As for the Illini, they will not be giving Jamestown any special treatment during their preparation.
WHAT THEY SAY:
Freshman defenseman Joe Nolan: “We prepare for every game the same way. We’ve been focusing on using our speed and really barring down in the d-zone and just making sure their big guys can’t get the puck down low. They’re going to be good games and we’re looking forward to it.”
Heflin: “My preparation is all the same. We’ve talked about this before; it’s what gives me my consistency. As long as I prepare the same way, we’ll get consistent results and I’ll be able to give the team a chance to win.”
Caprio: “We’re just sticking to our game plan. We’ve been watching film and focusing on special teams. Other than that, if we play our game, we’ll be fine. We have to keep going hard, get pucks deep, do the little things right and everything will take care of itself.”
Depth Up Front
The Illini currently lead their division (the CSCHL) with 4.4 goals/game, but even more help is on the way. Senior forward James McGing (20 points in 18 games) will return to the lineup after missing the past four games. Sophomore forward Chance Homerin (13 points in 16 games) is also back following a lower-body injury that sidelined him for last weekend’s affair with the Warriors. Adding these two offensive weapons gives Illinois the most explosive group they’ve had across all four forward lines in quite a while.
The team will also be at full strength (with the exception of senior Shaunak Pal, who was ruled out for the 2017-18 season in September) for the first time since freshman Thomas Kolaz and sophomore Luke Forfar joined the team two weeks ago. Internal competition has already begun with guys fighting for spots all week in practice and head coach Nick Fabbrini is expected to tinker with his line combinations to see what sticks before the end of the regular season in late February.
WHAT THEY SAY:
Freshman forward Drew Richter: I love [the competition]. It just shows how deep we are.
Heflin: “Everyone’s excited and it’s going to be hard decisions from the coaches, but that’s what you want on a team is everybody competing for a spot.”
Caprio: “There’s going to be a lot of opportunities for a lot of different guys. Everyone has to be ready for whenever their number’s called.”
Puck drop for Friday and Saturday’s games against Jamestown is set for 7 p.m. at the University of Illinois Ice Arena in Champaign. If you can’t catch the games in-person, the Illini Hockey Broadcasting Team will have the call on YouTube for both nights. Follow the official Illini Hockey Facebook and Twitter pages for updates.