By Kim Wrona
9/15/14 — DeKalb, IL | The DII Huskies were back in action on Saturday as they participated in a preseason game against the University of Illinois’ DI team at Darien Sportsplex Ice Arena in Darien.
Unfortunately for the Huskies, they fell to the Illini 7-2 in the warm-up contest.
“I think the boys did a great job keeping up with a very good U of I DI team,” head coach Chuck Rinaldo said. “The scoreboard doesn't reflect how close the game actually was. Overall, I think we had more quality chances and without the let downs in the second period, I believe the game could have gone either way.”
Despite having a power play just over 2 minutes into the game, the Huskies found themselves down 1-0 at the 9:25 mark of the first period. Josh Belmont flipped a shot over Huskies senior goaltender Alex Hare’s right shoulder from along the goal line while on the power play to put U of I up in the tilt.
Senior forward Nick Leon tied the game up at 1 with a goal on a 2 man advantage from right out in front of the crease as he tipped in a pass from senior defenseman Brian Pounds.
The Illini’s power play continued to cash in as Austin Zima’s shot from the right point found a way past Hare with 19 seconds left on a man advantage to put U of I back up 2-1 at the 4:32 mark of the second period.
The Huskies had a chance to tie the game up as senior forward Mark Greenberg found himself on a breakaway about 3 minutes later. He tried to go five-hole on Zev Grumet-Morris, but was denied.
The Illini tacked on 4 more goals before the second period ended to make the score 6-1 and also led 37-27 in shots on goal.
Freshman goaltender Jake Leon got his first game action under his belt for the Huskies as he was in net for the third period. He went on to make 10 saves on 11 shots; Hare had made 31 saves on 37 shots through the first 2 periods.
“Jake Leon looked very comfortable in the net and made some big saves,” Rinaldo said. “He always seems cool as a cucumber and squares up to the puck really well. He will do big things for us this season.”
The Huskies got on the board 57 seconds into the third period with a tally from the side of the net courtesy of freshman forward Eric Svejda to make the score 6-2.
The Illini tallied once more at 9:33 to make the final score 7-2.
“We need to clean up some of our work in the defensive zone,” Rinaldo said. “We were a little sloppy on our coverage and on breaking the puck out. That's a typical issue at the beginning of the season when we are still getting everyone up to speed on the systems and on the same page. The other thing we need to work on is scoring goals. We had a lot of very good scoring chances against Illinois and we just didn't finish. If we could have finished even half of those scoring opportunities we would have won the game.”
Overall, the Huskies were able to take many positives out of Saturday afternoon’s contest.
“Even when things started to go bad in the second period our guys never quit,” Rinaldo said. “They kept a positive attitude and pushed through the tough times. That says a lot about the character of this team and also shows that we will be able to handle the ups and down that occur in every game. The guys also adjusted to a very fast pace and stepped it up right from the start of the game. I think we caught Illinois off guard and if we can keep up that intensity against all opponents we will win a lot of games this year.”
Another bright spot for NIU on Saturday was the play of the rookies.
“I think all of the rookies did a great job in their first game,” Rinaldo said. “They all had to make some adjustments to the speed of the game and they are all still learning the systems so it will be a continued work in progress but I was very impressed with the way they were able to step in and make an immediate impact.”
The Huskies will kick off their regular season against Missouri State University in a MACHA conference game at 7:30 p.m. on Friday at Fox Valley Ice Arena in Geneva.
“Missouri State is a fast paced run and gun team that will score a lot of goals in a very short period of time if we aren't ready for them,” Rinaldo said. “We will need to keep the tempo high and stay within our systems. We can't get caught up in their run and gun mentality. If we play our lanes and limit their time and space, they will get frustrated and start turning the puck over. They have a very good goaltender too, so we will need to get to him early and not let him settle in.”
The Huskies host Missouri State in another contest at 5 p.m. on Saturday at FVIA.