The Ohio Bobcats hockey (23-6-2) used some late game heroics from Brett Agnew to take a 2-1 victory from the Illinois Fighting Illini (14-14-1) Friday night.
Opening the game, the Bobcats were extremely aggressive offensively with 17 shots in the first period alone. With the Illini averaging 28 shots against per game, it appeared that this game would be a much different story than they’re accustomed to.
“Good teams find a way to win,” coach Jonathan Sheridan said. “I don’t think that’s a game we necessarily deserve to win, but we get the win. I thought Illinois worked very hard. After we got our first goal, I think we took a step back. I don’t know if we were content with that, I don’t know why we would be. You gotta give it out to the guys in the orange and blue over there, they played hard and I think they deserved to win that one.”
Nathan De La Torre nearly opened the scoring about six minutes into the game after receiving a pass in the slot. After he fired his shot he began celebrating, only to notice he missed wide left and the scoreless game would continue.
Shortly after, the Illini took a penalty for interference and a minute later the Bobcats found their stride. With an aggressive cycle the puck went from J.C. Gulch to Agnew on the left side. Agnew found his opening and fired five-hole. The save was made, but Patrick Spellacy in front punched it through for the 1-0 lead.
Rebound control nearly cost starting goaltender Aaron Alkema a few goals throughout the first period with juicy rebounds fired away by protective defensemen. Nearing seven minutes remaining in the period, however, it would become a very different story.
Austin Bostock received the puck on the right side boards and carried into the zone with a quick shot to the far side. An easy left pad save turned the puck to the face-off dot where sophomore superstar John Olen fired a one-timer by Alkema’s glove on his recovery and just inside the post for the goal.
“We talked about it before and this week, the last time we played them, they embarrassed us in their barn,” Sheridan said. “So I don’t think it was a matter of looking over them, I just think it was a matter of we scored one quick and decided that was good enough for a little bit.”
The close first period yielded to a scoreless second period that featured a lot of hits and penalty kills for the Bobcats. Ohio would face four full penalties in the period and killed each off.
With roughly two minutes remaining, the Bobcats gave up a big opportunity. With the Bobcats on the penalty kill, the Illini’s Josh Baker received the puck on the left side and fired far side. A pad save left the puck out in front and Alkema on his knees. John Scully rifled a shot top shelf, but Alkema made a glove save with a split to hold the game at a tie.
“That’s the benefit of being 6’4″ when you have five foot long arms,” Sheridan said. “He got stuck on his belly there, and made a heck of a save. Without that, I don’t think we win. I think that was a changing point in the game. He played well all year for us, that’s just the kind of year he’s having.”
Ending the period with some fireworks, Scully once again became involved in a big moment of the game. Behind the play, he crosschecked Joe Breslin in the back. Breslin immediately turned to tackle him and hit punches and cross-checks. Breslin would be given a 10-minute game misconduct and five minute cross-checking penalty served by Vincent Nicolella.
“I think one of our downfalls is every time we worry about the officials too much,” Sheridan said. “The guys see a call that didn’t go their way, they tend to lose their top a little bit I guess. It’s frustrating for me, that’s my job and they worry about playing and I’ll worry about the officials and what’s happening. I think they worry too much about things they can’t control.”
For the five minute penalty kill, the Bobcats managed to spend most of the time holding the Illini in their own zone. The first and only shot on goal during the powerplay came with only 30 seconds remaining in the powerplay, once again invigorating the Bobcats skaters and offense.
“They played great for us tonight,” Sheridan said. “Our penalty kill won the game for us. I think in a game like that, that was one of the shining moments for us, was our penalty kill. There wasn’t a lot of good things to pull from that, but that was definitely one of them.”
Nearing the final two minutes, the Bobcats became much more aggressive. Agnew attempted a wrap around that missed wide, but Spellacy found it for a tap toward the net that also went wide.
Shortly after, Michael Harris managed a toe drag into the slot for what appeared to be an open shot. Instead the defender laid down for a big shot block to maintain the tie game.
With just 30 seconds left, Spellacy took a rebound away from the net and turned for a shot toward the net. It went wide left, but Agnew retrieved it. He turned for a backhanded wrap around and squeezed it by the outstretched leg of the Nick Clarke for what would be the game winning goal.
“Those guys want the puck, they want to be out there,” Sheridan said. “When the game’s on the line like that, they’re always looking back at the bench and looking at me saying ‘put us out, we want to go.’ That’s why you put them out, because they can deliver like that. Those guys, they like to be in the pressure situations, they like to feel the weight of the world on their shoulders. And it’s fun, because they go out and do it and they get to celebrate afterwards.”
The Bobcats took home a 2-1 victory despite only 12 shots in the final two frames, and now go into Saturday with momentum on their side facing the Illini once again at Bird Arena.