By Kim Wrona
9/12/16 – DeKalb, IL | The DII Huskies defeated the Chicago Cougars of the USPHL by a score of 6-3 in a preseason game on Sunday night at Leafs Ice Centre in West Dundee.
The quick pace of the match-up began at puck drop and continued throughout the whole game. Each team had good scoring chances, but junior goaltender Nick Bove and the Cougars’ netminder shut the door each time, resulting in a scoreless first period.
Senior netminder JoJo Durrbeck manned the crease for the second period as the Huskies rotated their goalies throughout the game. The middle frame also resulted in an increased level of physicality, which eventually led to a five minute power play for the Cougars.
The Huskies didn’t let being down a man deter their efforts though. With 53 seconds left on the penalty kill, freshman forward Nick Gulli tallied a shorthanded goal from out in from of the Cougars’ netminder to put NIU up 1-0.
The Cougars fought back and scored five minutes later off of a shot from the slot to tie the game at one. But with 8:20 left in the middle frame, senior forward Tyler Hilton gave NIU the lead back as he put the puck home in the middle of a scrum near the Cougars’ crease.
With 4:44 left in the sandwich stanza, the Cougars tied the game up at two after putting home a bouncing puck in the crease. The visitors then took the lead with a shot from out in front of Durrbeck just over a minute later.
The Huskies wouldn’t go into the third period down a goal though. Hilton tallied his second marker of the night with 1:54 left in the frame with a shot from the right circle to tie the game up at three.
Junior goaltender Jake Leon took over for Durrbeck in the third period as the Huskies started out the final frame with a bang.
16 seconds into the third period, senior forward Cody Billeck sniped a shot past the Cougars’ netminder to put the Huskies up 4-3.
The Huskies wouldn’t look back after Billeck’s goal. Gulli extended NIU’s lead with 13:23 left in regulation with a breakaway tally for his second marker of the night.
Junior forward Matthew Gould sealed the deal for the Huskies with an empty net goal with less than two minutes left to play in the game to give NIU the 6-3 victory.
“The most important keys to the team’s success tonight were that all lines were rolling and our defense stepped up and played a really good game,” Billeck said. “We were very physical and we kept momentum going through all three periods. It may not have been pretty, but 6-3 is 6-3.”
“[The players] continued to learn throughout the game,” head coach Nick Madonia said. “The first period was really sloppy. The second period got better and the third period got better on that. We started the game kind of all over the place. The defensive zone was a little sloppy, but as the game went on it definitely got better. Guys were listening and taking advice.”
After their preseason tune-up, the Huskies will begin the 2016-17 regular season with two tilts against Lewis University. Some aspects of the team’s game will be adjusted in practice this week before NIU takes the ice.
“Our breakouts could definitely be better [and we need to make] less turnovers,” Madonia said. “But other than that, there were a lot more positives than negatives [from Sunday’s game].”
“We really just need to work on chemistry,” Hilton said. “Our lines are all fresh and all new to each other. We all just need to get to know each other and our types of game style.”
“Once everyone starts playing together and starts skating, I think everything will come together naturally,” Billeck said. “We have speed and we have a little bit of size, but mostly our speed is what is going to make us successful and [having] everyone going on all cylinders.”
“Lewis is going to be a really good team,” Madonia said. “I think we need to get ready to play fast hockey. It’s going to be a quick team. I saw them play for a little bit last week and they look like they’ve got some skill.”
“We just have to go out there, do our jobs and it will all come together and hopefully we’ll get two wins,” Billeck said.
The DII Huskies and Lewis University will face-off at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, September 16 and at 5 p.m. on Saturday, September 17 at Canlan Ice Sports in Romeoville.