The Skatin’ Rebels opened their 2021-22 season against Illinois on Oct. 1, breaking the 580 day streak since the last time the Rebels played a meaningful game against an opponent.
UNLV swept Illinois in two competitive games back-to-back, two nights filled with cheering fans and hard-fought victories.
Game One: Oct. 1
Rebel Hockey welcomed back fans into City National Arena for the first in years, starting the night off with an auction of specialty warm-up jerseys honoring first responders, and 58 seconds of silence to honor the lives lost in the October 1 shooting in 2017.
Captain Jared Erickson was the first one on the scoreboard Friday night, six minutes into the first period. Shortly after the goal, the Rebels took their third penalty of the game with Luke Burke entering the box again for interference.
Early on in the second period, defenseman Alec Johnson knocked the puck in for a Rebel goal assisted by Brendan Manning and Ezekiel Estrada for a 2-0 lead.
Even with an adjustment to playing on the ice in a game format, the Rebels were making their mark against the Illini, who had played four games leading up to this matchup.
Illinois was quick to respond with a goal of their own by Alexander Matveev to put them on the scoreboard, 2-1.
With 22.8 seconds remaining on the board, A. Johnson lengthened UNLV’s lead with the first power-play goal of the year for the Rebels with an assist by Jack Kennedy.
Max Johnson secured the Scarlet and Gray win with a final goal five minutes into the third period, assisted by Burke and Nick Flanders, 4-1.
The physicality of the game between the two teams proved itself with a broken stick with 14:26 left in regulation time. Neither the Fighting Illini nor the Rebels were willing to stand down physically with UNLV totaling 23 penalties.
“[The guys] gotta look in the mirror,” head coach Anthony Greener said, “not take so many dumb penalties and stay out of the stuff after the whistles, those are little things you can work on. Again, 20 months off, they’re getting in the swing of things. Once we settle in it will be alright.”
Rebel Hockey defeated Illinois with a 4-1 victory in a battle fought game. The three stars of the night went to Zach Wickson with 25 saves, A. Johnson with two goals, and M. Johnson with the final goal for the Rebels.
Game Two: Oct. 2
The Rebels kicked off Saturday night’s game with a smoother transition onto the ice compared to their previous night, including cleaner passes. For the second night in a row, they conquered the Fighting Illini with a 5-3 victory.
UNLV started strong, finding any and every shooting opportunity to take, outshooting Illinois 18-3 in the first period.
The Scarlet and Gray striked first with a goal by M. Johnson at 9:01, assisted by A. Johnson and Sean Plonski.
Illinois proved to also return to the ice better than yesterday, tying the game two minutes later with Illini Matveev scoring a quick center pass to the net.
Early in the second period, Plonski snuck the puck in behind Illinois goaltender Elliot Gerth, with assists from Flanders and Manning.
Cole Wyatt added another one for the Rebels, sending the puck into the back of the net with ease, now leading 3-1.
The Skatin Rebels deepened the scoreboard with Flanders firing a wrist shot over Gerth to put UNLV up an extra point.
“It’s all about the two points at the end of the night,” Flanders said. “We’re here to win. We’re here to go to Nationals and as long as the team keeps winning, I’m happy.”
The Fighting Illini would close off scoring in the second period after Braden Stewart nicked in a goal, cutting the lead down to only a half (4-2).
Third period issued more pressure on both teams as the Illini scored within the first three minutes. Illinois’ Peter Campisi sent a pass to Aleksei Bogdonoff to bring the Rebel lead down to one point.
For the second night in a row, UNLV would see multiple penalties after getting too physical on the ice. Defenseman Hunter Muzzillo entered the penalty box early in the third, followed by Manning for elbowing, and Plonski for tripping.
“We had the same issue as yesterday,” Muzzillo said. “We gave Illinois opportunities to get back in the game and they capitalized on some.”
With 1:19 on the clock, Manning notched the puck into an unassisted empty-net goal. The Rebels outshot Illinois 37 to 33, with the three stars of the night being M. Johnson with one goal and two assists, Wickson with 30 saves, and Manning with one goal and one assist.
After two grueling games against Illinois, UNLV begins its season 2-0 with a battle won of 5-3 Saturday night.
“The boys deserve it. I’m proud of them, I know the rest of the coaching staff is proud of them. They earned it,” Greener said. “The best is still yet to come- we got a lot of work to do. The first period of the second game is the best period we’ve played.”
The Skatin’ Rebels stay at City National Arena next weekend to host Utah, kicking it off late Oct. 7 with an 11:59 p.m. puck drop followed by an Oct. 9 drop at 1 p.m.