Ice hockey: League foes highlight top-10 match-up

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There may be a roof, walls, and comfortable separation from the blustery conditions outside.  However, Friday marks the first of what could make many “winter classics” for Ohio. 

It’s been 48 days since the Bobcats have seen a puck drop at Bird Arena.  That break ends Friday as Illinois makes its first trip to Athens since the 2008-2009 season.

It’s a high-stakes table for the ‘Cats to be seated at.  The fifth and ninth-ranked teams in the ACHA squaring off.  Ohio putting its 8-0-0 home record to the test.  A pair of squads, looking up at CSCHL-leading Lindenwood, battling for some pivotal points. 

Perhaps not a must win.  But, in the grand scheme, what league game isn’t?

Ohio sits only one point behind the Lions for the league’s top spot in the Central States Collegiate Hockey League.  The Fighting Illini sit in third, just six points behind the Bobcats.   The result of this twinbill will certainly have season-long implications in the race for the league crown. 

Against common opponents (Davenport, Oakland, Iowa State, Penn State, Kent State), Illinois is 5-3, while the ‘Cats are 6-2.  The only difference is the teams’ fortunes in shootouts against the same opponent: Iowa State.  Illinois fell to the Cyclones 4-3 back in October while Ohio prevailed 3-2.

“We do play better at home, and hopefully we continue that,” Coach Dan Morris said.  “I know Illinois has struggled against us in our barn just like we’ve struggled in theirs.  There are adjustments to be made by everybody.”

The ‘Cats are on a two-game win streak after sweeping fellow Ohio-based club Kent State.  They outscored the Golden Flashes 15-2 on the weekend and have posted impressive offensive numbers through the first 25 games. 

Collectively, the team has found the back of the net 114 times.  Senior Michael Schultz and junior Tyler Pilmore both rank in the top-12 nationally in points. Now, Ohio has the task of continuing that offensive momentum while infusing healthy bodies back into the lineup.  

“They’re healed and they appreciate the weeks that they had off,” Morris said. “It’s a good and bad thing.  There’s guys making strides, like Jay Mazzarella, who just got back into the lineup, so the break probably came at a bad time for him.  But guys that played a lot needed the break to just rest their bodies.”

It’s good problem to have as Ohio starts to possess depth it’s rarely had this year.  It will be challenged against the Fighting Illni netminder, Nick Clarke.  Clarke has compiled an 8-5-1 record in 15 appearances, posting three shutouts along the way. 

As far as experience goes, the status of “first-year player” has essentially become null and void. 

“In the second half of the year, you throw away the rookie and freshman stuff. They know what we expect out of them now. You just kind of come back as everybody’s equal.” 

Offensively, Illinois sports six players with double-digit point totals.  However, no single skater has hit the ten-goal plateau thus far. Senior Andrew Cardona leads that category with nine this season.  Sophomore Austin Bostock is the overall points leader with 19. 

The puck drops at 7:30 p.m. Stay locked to for the recap of both the Friday and Saturday contests. Plus, catch ever second of the action by tuning into