By Kim Wrona
09/23/15 – DeKalb, IL | The DIII Huskies started the 2015-16 season with two road losses against Eastern Illinois University on September 18 and 19.
The visitors scored the first goal of the game on Friday. Senior forward and team captain Jc Weems got the Huskies on the board at 2:30 of the opening frame, but EIU answered back just over a minute later to tie the game at one.
Eastern took the lead before the first period was over, but NIU scored three times in the opening 12 minutes of the second period to make the score 4-2 in the Huskies’ favor. Junior forward Jeremy Bilecki and senior forward Mike Holum tallied their first goals of the season while Weems tacked on another marker. The Panthers tallied later in the period to cut their deficit to one.
NIU and EIU traded goals fast and furiously in the third period as five goals combined were scored. Despite getting a third goal from Weems for the hat trick and another from Bilecki, Eastern was able to tie the game up at six and send the game into overtime.
The game went into a shootout and the Huskies dropped the contest 7-6.
Despite the loss, the game featured sophomore goaltender Zach Bugajsky making his first collegiate start in net for the Huskies. The Bolingbrook, IL native made 59 saves on 66 shots in the contest.
“Friday’s game we played well,” head coach Nick Madonia said. “We put ourselves in a good position to win. We came out, scored early, kind of traded leads and scores for most of the game, and then went up two with about five minutes left. 90 per cent of the time, you win those games, but when you take two bad penalties and give up two power play goals against, that’s a great way to lose a game.”
“It was a good game,” Bugajsky said. “Both teams had a lot of shots. [There were] lead changes throughout the whole game. Power plays for both teams were where most of the goals came from. The team that took more penalties ended up losing, which was us.”
“We didn’t catch a break in the shootout, hit a crossbar and they scored,” Madonia said. “Those games aren’t fun, but they happen, especially with some young guys in some key spots. Hopefully, that’s experience and we can move on from it.”
Saturday’s game contained more back-and-forth scoring. Eastern got on the board just over one minute into the first period, but the Huskies tied the game up with a Bilecki tip off of a Holum shot four minutes later.
Junior forward Tyler Hilton tapped in the puck from the crease to start the second period to give the Huskies their first lead of the game. Eastern then went on to score four unanswered goals throughout the remainder of the tilt to defeat NIU by a score of 5-2. Penalties late in the game hurt the Huskies’ chances at making any kind of a comeback.
“Saturday’s game was a frustrating one,” Weems said. “We came out and they kind of punched us in the mouth. We kind of answered back, but the big thing that killed us was penalties. That’s really the theme of the weekend is penalties really killed us. That’s the difference between a two goal win on Friday and a better game on Saturday. We got to make sure we cinch that up and make sure the penalties aren’t a deciding factor in games because it’s a lot easier to play 5-on-5 than 4-on-5.”
“We couldn’t get a bounce to go our way; good work makes bounces,” Bilecki said. “We had the lead and we [threw] it away and took stupid penalties again. The stupid penalties need to stop. It’s going to hurt us in the long run. It’s the first weekend and we don’t want to get into that bad habit and have it come back and haunt us when we’re playing games that are for our league and everything.”
Bugajsky made 35 saves on 40 shots in his second start of the weekend.
“I was a little tired, but I felt fine going into the game,” Bugajsky said. “Once again, we took too many penalties and they just started piling up the goals.”
“Zach was the biggest bright spot out of the whole weekend,” Madonia said. “I think both games combined, he had an 88.7 save percentage. So, obviously for a [rookie] goalie, first weekend of games, it’s impressive stuff.”
“Zach was spectacular,” Bilecki said. “He stopped everything he could. … For the first weekend as our goalie, he didn’t show any signs of shakiness or anything. He made those saves that mattered and in the end we couldn’t help him out offensively or defensively with the penalties.”
“Zach was outstanding,” Weems said. “He did exactly what we needed him to do. With a performance like that, we’re going to be riding him out all season.”
The other newcomers also played well, despite the losses on the weekend, according to Madonia.
“The rookies played well, especially defensively,” he said. “Three of our six defensemen were rookies. All three of them played out of their minds, better than expectations. [Freshmen defensemen Joe] Schulz and [Mike] Neville ate a lot of minutes. Schulz was even playing top power play minutes; when you can get that out of your rookies, that’s good stuff. [Freshman defenseman Ryan] Elliott was able to give us awesome, awesome minutes throughout the weekend and we’re looking forward to being able to lean on those guys throughout the year.”
The Huskies’ next set of games will also be on the road as they take on University of Wisconsin-Platteville. The two contests will be at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, September 25 and 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, September 26 at Mystique Ice Center in Dubuque, IA.
“We have to stay out of the penalty box,” Madonia said. “We’re a good team, but it’s hard to win games when you have four guys on the ice.”
“Wisconsin-Platteville year in and year out is a really, really solid team,” Weems said. “We’re going to have to play disciplined hockey. We can’t be taking penalties. That’s a team that will murder us on the power play so we can’t be giving them free chances like that. We have to skate fast, catch passes, make passes and it always helps when you get a few bounces from the puck. I think we’re heading into this weekend with a chip on our shoulder, which is what we needed, and I think we’re ready to work and we’re ready to show Wisconsin-Platteville what we got.”