Illinois hockey season comes to end with loss against Oklahoma

The Illinois hockey team’s stay in Delaware has come to an end.

After upsetting No. 15 Arizona (17-22-0) on Thursday, the No. 18 Illini (21-17-2) couldn’t extend their season against the No. 2 Oklahoma Sooners (24-5-2) and lost 6-1 in Friday’s physical game, which was more closely contested than the final score may indicate.

Illinois was able to outshoot the Sooners 31-27 for the game, but Oklahoma took advantage of the scoring opportunities Illinois could not, which senior captain Austin Bostock said was the difference between Illinois’ win the day before.

“I think in Thursday’s game against Arizona, we just put the puck in the net,” Bostock said. “We finished our chances when we could. Against Oklahoma, we outshot them and out-chanced them, but we couldn’t find the back of the net.”

The Illini’s best scoring chance came in the first period when Sooners forward Bryce Johnson picked up a five-minute major penalty for a hit from behind that led to an ejection. Illinois had plenty of opportunities to open scoring but could not find the back of the net before Oklahoma netted its first goal with two minutes left in the period.

Illinois also gave Oklahoma several good scoring opportunities off turnovers, which the Sooners capitalized on to jump out to a 3-0 lead in the second period.

“That’s probably the most frustrating part about it,” head coach Nick Fabbrini said. “(Oklahoma’s) obviously a very good team, and I think you can point directly to three or four of our mistakes where we handed them goals.”

The Illini were able to end their scoring drought with a goal from senior defenseman Mike Evans near the end of the second period, but the Sooners responded with another goal just 17 seconds later and would not look back on their way to a 6-1 victory in the second round.

The things that seemed to go wrong for the Illini on Friday went the opposite way in Thursday’s victory over Arizona. Illinois was 3-for-6 on the power play while Arizona was held scoreless on three power play opportunities — a major difference in the game’s outcome.

Illinois scored first when freshman defenseman Cody von Rueden added two goals in the final five minutes of the first, prompting an Arizona goaltender change. Five minutes into the second, senior forward John Scully added two more Illini goals on power plays, leading to a 4-3 victory.

“Momentum in these types of games is a huge factor,” von Rueden added.

Illinois could not carry over that momentum into the second round.

“I think the power play wasn’t as sharp as it was Thursday, but we still got the looks that we wanted to get,” Fabbrini said. “You’ve got to give (Oklahoma) credit.”

Despite exiting the national tournament much sooner than they would have liked, the Illini were glad they were able to grab at least one win in Delaware.

“I think it was really important for us to win at least one game to prove to the country that we belong there,” Fabbrini said. “We believed all along that we should be there and that we’re definitely one of the top 20 teams in the country.”

Though Illinois battled back from a one-win October to grab one of the final seeds in the ACHA tournament, it wasn’t able to achieve any of its preseason goals, which included earning the CSCHL regular-season title, winning the CSCHL tournament, and winning the ACHA tournament. But Fabbrini still thinks there is much to build upon from the season.

“It was an interesting season for sure,” he said. “We went through a lot of adversity, but we came a long way. We learned a lot, the younger guys especially. They learned what it takes to compete at this level.”

For most of the team, this is just the end of another season, but for the six Illinois seniors, this was a career-ending loss. 

“We gave it our all, and I’m happy to be able to look around at all the guys on the (team) and tell them that I did everything I could to help them get a win,” Bostock said. “I think everybody on this (team) could do the same. All you can ask for from a teammate is to make sure you can look them in the eye and tell them you gave it your all and I think everybody on this (team) did so.”

Joey and Sean can be reached at sports@dailyillini.com