By Kim Wrona
11/14/13—DeKalb, IL This past weekend was a strange one for the D2 Huskies in regards to the schedule. The team had to play 3 games in 3 nights with the first game coming on Thursday, November 7th. The Huskies hosted California State University-Fullerton in the friendly confines of Fox Valley Ice Arena; it was the Huskies first home game since October 12th.
The line-up looked a little different for the Huskies against Cal State as junior forward Jc Weems and freshman forward Jeremy Bilecki were called up from the D3 Huskies for the game and they contributed on the scoresheet. Weems chipped in with 2 goals and Bilecki recorded an assist.
“It was awesome,” head coach Chuck Rinaldo said, “It was a refresher to have some new energy in the room, some new guys ready to work hard and push our guys to work hard. We’ve been looking for some scoring in some other areas besides our top line and to see it come from the D3 guys was very good. It shows how much potential those two guys have for the future in the D2 program.”
“It’s always awesome to be out there and get recognized by the coaches,” Weems said. “Anytime you get a call-up like that, you hope to do something that’s noteworthy for the coaches and give them a reason to call you back up. It was exciting to be out there, especially on my [21st] birthday; it meant a lot. It meant a lot to my mom, too; she drove up from Champaign for the game.”
While Weems has played with the D2 squad in the past, this was Bilecki’s first experience getting called up.
“It was weird,” he said. “I had no idea what to do in warm-ups. The first couple shifts were all nerves. After I went back and watched the game online, it was brutal. I couldn’t catch a pass or make a pass. Weems wasn’t nervous, but I definitely had the jitters. … It was a blast.”
Their D2 season debuts came on a night where the Huskies found themselves victorious as they picked up an 8-4 win with senior goaltender Nick Bonin making 44 saves in net on the night.
The Huskies battled back from originally being down 1-0 early in the first to take a 3-1 lead by the first intermission on two goals from senior forward Joe Boris and on Weems’ first tally on the night. Junior forward Justin Rucinski—in his first game since October 18th—tallied his 11th goal of the 2013-14 season before the 5 minute mark of the 2nd period with a shot from the right circle to give NIU a 4-1 lead. Junior forward Brandon Niedziela tallied his 2nd goal of the season not long after to make it 5-1.
The Huskies got into a bit of penalty trouble after that. Freshman forward Tyler Sukel took a 5 minute major for cross-checking and Cal State took advantage of their opportunity to cash in. 51 seconds into the penalty, Cal State scored twice to bring the score to 5-3; the Huskies did catch a break just over 2 minutes later when a Cal State player was sent to the box for tripping Rucinski, which gave them 2 minutes of 4-on-4 hockey to cut down on the time they had to kill on the penalty. Cal State came within one of NIU’s lead on a different power play with 6.5 seconds left in the period.
The Huskies needed the third period to regroup and came out better, including getting a huge save from Bonin with just over 9 minutes remaining in the period. With 6:25 left in the game, Boris recorded his 3rd goal of the night—giving him the hat trick—as he deflected in Rucinski’s shot to make it 6-4 NIU. Weems added his second marker of the night with 2:30 to go; freshman defenseman LJ Scimeca recorded his first goal of the season 34 seconds later to make it 8-4.
The second period power play goals for Cal State almost spelled out disaster for the Huskies, but they were able to regroup and come away with two points.
“It’s just reminders to guys that you can’t be undisciplined,” Rinaldo said. “You can’t take costly penalties; you’re going to pay for it. We had to capitalize on our opportunities and limit their opportunities and to get a big penalty like that lets a team stay in the game. It was kind of a refocus moment and we got back to what we needed to get to to get the job done.”
The following night, the Huskies traveled down to Illinois State University to take on the no. 1 ranked team in the ACHA rankings. The no. 15 ranked Huskies came ready to play and opened up a 3-0 lead on ISU in the first period. Senior forward Nick Leon opened up the scoring for NIU and was then followed by two power play goals from senior and graduate defensemen Troy Hickey and Brian Pickett. ISU scored twice in the second, but Pickett added another power play tally in the middle frame to make it 4-2 NIU. In the third, Rucinski—power play goal—and Leon tallied to make it 6-2 and give NIU the victory; junior netminder Alex Hare made 27 saves in his first start since October 18th.
“Special teams are crucial when it comes to playing teams like ISU,” Rinaldo said. “It comes back to capitalizing on your opportunities and they managed to give us a couple big breaks by getting some penalties and we had to make them pay. That’s how we gain our momentum, by scoring power play goals. It’s very hard to recover from giving up 3 power play goals as a defending team.”
The Huskies looked as if they were on the right track to sweeping their 3-in-3 stretch on Saturday evening against ISU they held a 5-3 lead on ISU going into the third period. Rucinski tallied a hat trick while Boris and senior forward Rob Bock got on the board as well; Leon had racked up 3 assists and Hare had made 23 saves in net by this point. In the third, Leon added a goal to give himself a 4 point night and to give the Huskies a 6-4 lead.
Unfortunately for NIU, ISU was able to score 3 unanswered goals to put them on top 7-6, which was the final score. The game-tying goal and game-winning goal came 5 seconds apart.
“Ultimately, playing 3 games in a weekend is something we’re not used to and playing such a high tempo weekend against a very high skilled team, part of it was us running out of gas,” Rinaldo said on the breakdown. “However, we changed the way we were playing in the third. They were playing with desperation and we were playing conservative. We played the whole weekend with a swarming mentality, and those last 10 minutes we let them back in the game as we were on our heels and hoped we could hang on to the lead that we had.”
Overall this past weekend, the Huskies’ top line of Boris, Rucinski and Leon really put on a show as they racked up a total of 32 points in 3 games.
“They were a fun line to watch,” Rinaldo said. “They complement each other very well. Justin and Nick have been playing together for a while, but I think there was that missing piece to the puzzle with a guy that can move the puck well. A guy like Boris has so much patience with the puck and can create opportunities for guys like Justin and Nick. These guys have quickly showed, in a short amount of time, that they can be the top line in our league.”
The focus for the Huskies now turns to this weekend as they face another 3-in-3 set at the Robert Morris University Showcase at the Edge in Bensenville. On Friday, the Huskies will take on DePaul University at noon—yes, noon. On Saturday, the Huskies play ISU again at 3 pm and on Sunday, the Huskies play at 5:30 pm against Robert Morris University.
“It’s definitely an odd weekend for us,” Rinaldo said. “It’s one thing to play 3 games in a weekend, but then you add up the odd times and the fact that we’re playing three teams that are highly ranked and teams that we need to find a way to beat. They’re going to be three tough games and it’s going to be challenging on many aspects.”