Jimmy Thomas spread his legs the width of the net, desperately looking to find both the puck and a way to stop Illinois’ offense from taking its second lead of the second period.
The goalie searched for the puck — which acted more like a pinball amid the several players in front of Thomas’ crease — but he didn’t find it until Illinois was already celebrating Stephen Quinn’s goal after he managed to lift the puck over Thomas’ outstretched pad.
The goal gave Illinois a 4-3 lead in its eventual 5-4 win in the semifinal round of the Central States Collegiate Hockey League playoffs at Bird Arena on Saturday.
It came with 55 seconds left in the period and was followed by another Illini goal 45 seconds later, encapsulating the wild seven-goal second period that ultimately sealed Ohio’s fate in its final game at Bird Arena this season.
“In the last minute of the second period, we just gave the game away,” coach Sean Hogan said. “It was terrible.”
Illinois, which scored all five of its goals in the second period, will play Lindenwood on Sunday for the CSCHL postseason title in Bird Arena. As the two teams play the last American Collegiate Hockey Association game inside the Bobcats' home rink this season, Ohio will be left wondering how it let Illinois slip away.
Ohio matched Illinois goal for goal, or rather bounce for bounce, for the majority of the second period in Saturday’s loss.
After Illinois took a 2-1 lead in the second period with a shot from the blue line that snuck through the legs of defenseman Shawn Baird and bounced by Thomas, Ohio countered with a goal that bounced off an Illinois defender and snuck by an unsuspecting Jake Barnhart in net.
The 29-second sequence foreshadowed how the final eight minutes of the period would end: a four-goal frenzy and exchange of blows that ended with the Bobcats knocked out. No. 4 Ohio (26-9-2) answered two of No. 5 Illinois’ (19-8-2) three goals to take the lead in the second period, but the Illini’s final two goals seemingly took the breath out of the rink and substantially shrunk the Bobcats’ third-period comeback odds.
It was perhaps the toughest loss for the Bobcats’ three seniors, Jake Faiella, Mike Palasics and Drew Crandall, who left their final game at Bird Arena with a heartbreaking loss.
As Faiella emerged from the locker room to discuss his final Ohio home game, Palasics stood along the rink’s boards with his head down, still dressed in his gear from the waist down.
Faiella, Ohio's team captain, talked in a low voice — but he didn’t need to speak up among a quiet Ohio locker room that sounded almost empty.
“Terrible. I feel terrible,” Faiella said. “It’s a hard loss to swallow.”
As two of the Bobcats’ biggest rivals play at their home rink for a divisional championship, Ohio will look ahead to focus and make sure that its next game in the national tournament in Columbus isn’t its last.
“Beginning tomorrow morning, it’s nationals,” Faiella said. “We’re going to put this behind us.”