Prominence on campus has not been an unfamiliar trait for Illini Hockey teams over the past three seasons. Illinois was 16-5-2 at home in 2016-17 and was swept only once (by Iowa State) at the rink dubbed “The Big Pond.” Some players attribute the team’s triumphs in Champaign to the electric crowd atmosphere not found in most ACHA Division I hotbeds.
Others will point out the obvious: the rink is bigger.
The dimensions for the University of Illinois Ice Arena are so that they accommodate speed skating as well as hockey. Opened in 1931, the ice surface is 192 feet by 115 feet, 30 feet wider than the average NHL rink. For the opposition, it’s a foreign landscape that takes longer than a few days to get acclimated to.
For the Illini, it’s an advantage. Their power play operated at a success rate of 26.4 percent last season and was considered one of the best in the nation. They also scored over 4.7 goals/game.
In 2017-18, however, prominence has turned into inconsistency against top opponents. No. 9 Illinois is currently 11-6-1 at the Big Pond with four home games remaining, but were recently swept last Friday and Saturday by the University of Jamestown Jimmies.
While their play at home has been underwhelming as of late, their play on the road has significantly improved from a calendar year ago. This weekend, they face one of their largest tests of the season in the form of a two-game series in Ames, Iowa against the No. 10 Iowa State Cyclones.
The Illini have struggled to stay afloat away from Champaign since the 2010s, failing to win most weekends in terms of point percentage. Through six games on the road this season, the team in orange and blue is 4-1-1. It’s a welcoming trend head coach Nick Fabbrini has been satisfied with, no matter how his team has accomplished it.
WHAT THEY SAY:
Fabbrini: “Yeah, I think we’ve been playing well on the road and I’m not sure why. For whatever reason, this team seems to play a little better there than here, based purely on winning percentage, which is weird because that’s the opposite of how it’s always been here. It starts with us playing simple and relying on our work ethic more.”
Senior forward Eric Cruickshank: “I’ve told you this several times, this is one of the closest teams I’ve been on. I think that definitely comes into it. Everyone’s rooting for everyone and we’ve just been playing well on the road. We have to continue it because we’ve have a lot of big games in front here.”
Junior defenseman Tyler Opilka: “Obviously guys get to spend more time with each other on the road, we don’t have other things distracting us and whatnot. We do become closer on the road for sure. We want to come in and try to take as much air out of the opposition’s game as we can and it’s been working for us.”
Special Special Teams:
In a battle of two CSCHL rivals like the Illini and the Cyclones, games often come down to special teams. A crucial penalty kill or a back-breaking power play goal can shift the momentum for either side. Illinois has not allowed a power-play tally over the past four games and have killed off 15 consecutive minor penalties.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Illini have ramped up their ability to capitalize when they have the advantage. Last weekend against the No. 12 University of Jamestown, sophomore Chance Homerin, senior James McGing and freshman Drew Richter scored on a major 5-on-4 power play.
If they can hold off Iowa State at even-strength and keep up their compete level during special teams situations, there’s a good chance Illinois can escape Ames with a point majority series victory.
WHAT THEY SAY:
Cruickshank: “When you can make a mistake and you know that you have a penalty kill that’s going to bail you out, that’s definitely a rewarding feeling to know I’ve got 19 other guys in there that can help that guy out. Our power play as well, obviously it’s not something where you’re going to go 16-for-16 on the power play. We’ve seen more and more of the units starting to click, we had a pretty good weekend this weekend. Carrying off of that, starting to get back into the rhythm, knowing where everyone wants to move and do things is really big for us.”
Opilka: “We had to make some personnel changes, trying to find something that worked. Last weekend, we managed to get three power play goals between both units. We just found that combination that’s been working and hopefully we’re going to roll with some of that momentum that we built last weekend.”
Tyler Opilka is tied for second in the CSCHL for points among defensemen with 23 points (7 goals, 16 assists) in 24 games so far this season. The player he’s tied with? None other than Illini freshman phenom Joe Nolan. Opilka has amassed 73 points in 93 career games playing for Illinois and seems to get better each and every season.
It’s not often in the ACHA where consistent offensive production from the back-end is expected from an individual, but that’s how much confidence Fabbrini has in Opilka, who has served as an alternate captain for the club for two consecutive seasons. It’s a position Opilka’s had to work towards over time, but his persistence has paid off.
WHAT THEY SAY:
Opilka: “Coming in freshman year, I didn’t really have a role until later on in the season, so I had to earn my time. I’ve worked on keeping things simple, trying to get pucks through to the net, jumping in when I can. Fortunately, I’ve had players like Eric Cruickshank and James McGing who can bury the puck when I give it to them and they can find me in situations where I can capitalize, too.”
Cruickshank: “Coming in as a freshman, we knew he was going to be a good player for us. Since then, he’s elevated his game in all assets. He’s a great skater, has a great shot, great vision, great composure with the puck. He’s been able to elevate all of those in his three years here so far. He’s one of our captains who has definitely been able to not only lead by example on the ice, but lead off of it as well. It’s definitely good to see.”
Fabbrini: “He’s a really skilled player. I think it starts with his skating ability. When he’s skating and keeping things simple, he’s a really effective defenseman both ways. He’s a guy we can trust in all situations.”
Puck drop for Friday and Saturday’s games against Iowa State is set for 7:30 p.m. at the Ames/ISU Ice Arena in Ames. 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.