An early surge, a response, a retaliation shot, some man-advantage magic, and late lockdown defense.
All of these encompassed a wild first matchup for Ohio in the ACHA Men’s Division 1 National Tournament.
#11 Illinois shrunk a three-goal deficit to one late, but a critical Illini penalty nixed their momentum, allowing Ohio to hold on for a 5-4 win.
Earlier this season, Illinois’ (16-17-1) struggles in Athens continued as the small stature of Bird bottled up their attack. The Fighting Illini could have felt more at home at Hoover Ice Arena, playing on a rink closer to the size of their own.
This did not show at the onset of the first as Ohio (27-13-1) vied to bury their opponents. Tyler Pilmore opened things up with a fierce individual effort. Racing up the far boards, he beat the Illini defenders with a strike at the 16:19 mark, giving the Bobcats an early 1-0 lead.
Just minutes later, Nick Rostek buried a shot for a point in his third straight contest. It also gave him 20 scores this year and gave his team a two-goal advantage. Jonathan Pietremala followed suit late in the frame, going top corner to deliver Ohio’s third goal.
Dan Rooney got the nod to start in goal for Illinois, but was quickly pulled in favor of Nick Clarke after the Bobcats’ trio of tallies.
At the onset of the second, Illinois came out with a more inspired effort. Another Schultz, Derek, who also wears number 10, broke the scoring drought for the Fighting Illini, sending one past the right blocker of Fedor Dushkin.
Later in the second, an unlikely strike from Matt Welch found twine to bring the Illini to within one. It was Welch’s fourth score on the year. On their heels, the Bobcats buckled down for a run that built their lead up once again.
Zack Barbis fired top shelf after splitting the Illini defense to put the lead at 4-2. Later in the frame, another skater got his fourth goal of the year. This time, it was John Luciana, who fired left side past Rooney to build Ohio’s lead back to three goals.
Refusing to go quietly, Illinois’ aggressive power play units took advantage of open opportunities after the final intermission. Derek Schultz snuck one under Dushkin’s leg on the man advantage to cut the lead back to two with 10:03 left.
Later in the frame, leading-scorer Andrew Cardona finally got into the mix. With another man advantage, he snuck the biscuit just inside the pipe to make it 5-4. It also put Illinois at three power play goals for the contest.
With the lead back to a single tally, Clarke was set to race to the bench. The Bobcat forecheck kept the puck out of the defensive zone long enough to draw an Illinois penalty. Illinois cleared the puck quickly as Clarke dashed off to put Illinois back at even strength. However, Ohio’s defensive unit held fast just long enough to secure the victory.
In all, four skaters tallied two points for the Bobcats. Zach Tisdale, Zander Dover, Jared Fuhs, and Jay Mazzarella also picked up assists. In net, Dushkin picked up his 16th win of the season, improving to 16-10-1.
Ohio now comes back on Sunday to battle #3 Delaware. The Blue Hens defeated #14 Davenport 3-1 to advance to the quarterfinals. The Blue Hens took the lone meeting with Ohio, 6-1, on neutral ice back on October 9th.
The loss ends the season for the Illini as well as the career of head coach Chad Cassel. He steps down after spending 16 seasons at the helm of the Illini program.
The puck is slated to drop at 1 p.m. Sunday. Tune in to FastHockey.com for the free broadcast of the contest, along with the entire National Tournament. Stay locked to ohiobobcatshockey.com for full previews and recaps throughout the Bobcats run.