DeKALB — Hockey struggled on both ends of the ice against the 29th ranked McKendree University Bearcats in a loss Friday night in O’Fallon, Illinois.
After a pair of blowout losses to McKendree earlier in the season, NIU had this weekend circled on its calendar. But game one would improve McKendree’s record to 3-0 against NIU on the season.
The Bearcats applied pressure on sophomore goaltender Chad Dodero and the Huskies’ defense throughout the entirety of the game. Dodero faced 65 shots in NIU’s 7-2 loss.
In the time NIU did spend on the attack, it had a hard time creating quality offensive opportunities. The Huskies put only 20 shots on the Bearcat first-year goaltender Kayne Pasquet during Friday night’s contest.
McKendree set the tone from the opening puck drop. Dodero and the Huskie defense held firm until the Bearcats broke the ice with a power play goal with 4:48 remaining in the period. About two minutes later, McKendree found the back of the net again to take a 2-0 lead.
At the end of the first and to begin the second period, NIU had a 5-on-3 advantage. It was unable to cash in, and McKendree made the Huskies pay almost instantly, scoring a goal seconds after killing off each penalty. Head Coach Mike Rucinski said the team’s inability to execute its passes is what sunk their power plays.
“The connections weren’t there and we didn’t get quality opportunities,” Rucinski said. “That was a big point in the game, we were hoping to get one there.”
The Bearcats would score two more goals, including one on the power play, before sophomore defenseman Zach Huggins got NIU on the scoreboard. This was Huggins’ third goal this season.
The Huskies didn’t celebrate for long, as the Bearcats would come down off the next faceoff and reclaim a five goal lead about five seconds after Huggins’ goal. The second period would end with NIU trailing 6-1.
The scoring slowed down in the third period, with each team lighting the lamp once. For the Huskies, it was first-year forward Rodahn Evans scoring his team-leading eighth goal of the season. Assisting on the goal was sophomore forward Tyler Gut.
With the loss, NIU drops to 5-19 on the season and 5-8 against Midwest College Hockey opponents.
The Huskies will try splitting the series 5 p.m. Saturday when the teams face off one last time before playoffs begin. The game can be streamed on NIU Hockey’s Facebook page.
Rucinski said there won’t be many strategic adjustments for game two, but first-year defenseman Drake Gieseke is questionable for Saturday’s bout. With first-year forward Nick Gonzalez and first-year defenseman Tyler Berry already ruled out, the Huskies can ill afford to lose more players to injury. Rucinski said the team will have to gut it out if they want to avoid being swept.