BLOOMINGTON — Various injuries, ailments and indiscretions have kept the Central Illinois Flying Aces’ defensive corps somewhat in a state of flux this season.
The unit has tried to become as cohesive as possible while adjusting to the necessitated pairing changes.
“I think the D corps as a whole has jelled really well together. I know all of us are comfortable playing with whoever coach puts us out there with,” said Mike Callahan, one of three first-year players from the Aces chosen Wednesday to participate in next month’s USHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in Kearney, Neb.
“Even during the games, we’ll get set up with a partner and if we get switched up during the game, we have no problems switching over. It’s one of our strengths.”
A Providence recruit, Callahan joined forward Tyler Madden and goalie Zach Stejskal in being named to Team East for the league’s midseason showcase, giving the franchise the most selections in its four-year history.
Yet his current concern is getting Central Illinois back in the win column when they face the Team USA under-18 team Saturday in Plymouth, Mich.
Now 8-9-1, the Aces have lost four of five beginning with a 5-0 road loss to the 18s on Nov. 18.
“For us, it’s going to be big to capitalize on our chances,” said Callahan, who joins Simon Butala as the only Central Illinois blue-liners to play in all 18 games. “When we played them a couple weeks ago, we dominated most of the first half of the game but we couldn’t bury our chances. It ended up costing us because they buried theirs.”
The Aces are without injured defensemen Charlie Raith and Jamie Armstrong, who won’t come off IR until after the holiday break. Jason Smallidge missed the first 14 games while Brady Smith, Davis Bunz and Jacob Olbing have been sidelined at times and Sebastien Dirven served a one-game suspension.
“I think it’s been tough to really evaluate the D corps fully because of those situations. But I think we have one of the better D corps in the league,” said coach Mike Watt. “Within the game itself, we have to manage the puck a little bit better because they are very good with the puck but sometimes they try to do too much.
“Sometimes less is more and that’s the approach we’re taking. We’d rather them pick their spots a little bit better when they jump into the play.”
The Aces will be missing some forwards Saturday as well, with Drew Elser out with a concussion and Madden playing for the U.S. Junior Select team in this week’s World Junior A Challenge in Canada.
“When guys go in and out, you’re trying to get your lineup and set your lineup as best you can. Not having them, you have to shuffle some pieces,” said Watt.
One piece that’s been fairly stable of late has been Stejskal, who has elevated his play while appearing in four straight contests. He made 28 saves in a standout performance Friday in a 3-2 home win over Sioux City.
“He’s made great strides and that’s the biggest thing with us,” said Watt. “Coming from high school hockey, it’s a huge jump. The shooters, the speeds, the change of angles, the passing … this level is such an elite level for this age group and he’s made some huge gains, huge strides in his game.”
Oliver Wahlstrom is the top scorer for the 18s with six goals and four assists. Ke’Andre Miller and Gavin Hain each scored twice in the Nov. 18 game.
“When you play a team like the 18s, you have to focus on yourself,” said Watt. “You can’t focus on them and what they do, you have to stick to your game plan. It’s when you start to get away from it when they can start to expose it, because then you have individuals going off on their own game plan and that never works.”
Central Illinois committed 14 penalties totaling 71 minutes in that previous meeting with the 18s, so Callahan knows his team will need to avoid being provoked.
“They’re a scrappy team and they like to instigate a lot of little things,” said Callahan. “It’s going to be important for us to stay out of that stuff and stay focused on what’s going to help win the game. Staying out of the box is going to be a big part of that.”