That's the situation the Ohio State hockey program finds itself in heading into a two-game series this weekend in Value City Arena with No. 14 Northern Michigan (12:05 Friday, 7:05 Saturday).
The Buckeyes (6-3-1) have posted three straight shutouts for the first time in school history, downing Alabama-Huntsville by scores of 4-0 and 2-0 last weekend after beating Alaska at home Oct. 28 by a 6-0 score. The streak – which has seen both senior Cal Heeter and junior Brady Hjelle in net – has reached 195:51 of ice time.
"It's pretty cool to have that streak," Heeter said. "I didn't have a lot to do vs. Alaska. Brady came in and played the first night at Alabama-Huntsville and was real solid. He played great in the first period. The second night, it was pretty similar. It was nothing really special. They didn't have a whole lot of chances. It was a pretty easy night."
As Heeter alluded to, he got the start in the second night vs. Alaska before giving way to Hjelle – who is in his first year in the program after starting his career at Minnesota Duluth – for the opener in Huntsville. Heeter, who started every game last year, was back in net in the second game vs. UAH.
The senior has posted consecutive shutouts for the first time in his career, becoming the third goaltender in OSU history to complete the feat. Dave Caruso did it twice, last doing so in 2005, while Bill McKenzie did it in 1972 while leading the Buckeyes to the Central Collegiate Hockey Association championship.
Those goalies haven't been facing the most rubber thanks to some solid team defense. Heeter made 27 saves in the game vs. Alaska and 20 in the capper vs. Huntsville, while Hjelle had 21 stops in his shutout.
"Absolutely we take pride in that," senior defenseman and co-captain Sean Duddy said. "It's not just the D but the goaltenders have been playing very well. Both Cal and Brady had great games back to back this weekend, and Cal had a great one against Alaska the weekend before that.
"It's team defense as well. The forwards are coming back and we've been really good at backchecking on rushes right now, picking up loose guys, and that's huge. It's kind of a team thing right now."
Duddy said there is still work to be done, though, especially with OSU still dressing three true freshmen among its six-man defensive corps.
"Coach has been preaching defense all season," Duddy said. "But once again, there's a ton of stuff we need to work on. We've had plenty of breakdowns in the last couple of games so we can improve in that area."
Dealing With Success
The Buckeyes enter the game having gone 4-0-1 in their last five games, and the team's 6-3-1 start is the best in seven seasons.
Yet the team has accomplished that with one of the youngest rosters in the CCHA. OSU has 12 freshmen on the squad, and some gameday lineups have been more than half filled with first-year players.
As a result, head coach Mark Osiecki is interested to see how his team responds to its recent run of strong play.
"I think that's our challenge," the second-year mentor said. "We've talked about it. There's a lot of different challenges for this group, but I think adversity hasn't been an issue so far. We've responded pretty well to difficult situations, but now in a positive light, how are they going to handle it?"
Despite the team's relative youth, Osiecki has liked the way the team has both responded to challenges and gone to work every day both on and off the ice. Those are the qualities one would expect would help keep the team grounded, but one never knows how a team is going to respond in a new situation.
As a result, Osiecki has leaned on his captains and veterans to get the team ready, and Duddy is curious to see how the squad responds.
"It's almost harder to deal with winning games than losing games," he said. "Losing games fires you up. It's a lot harder to stay motivated especially as a young team if you're winning games. It's huge going into this weekend that the older guys on the team and the coaches as well and the team as a whole doesn't start to rest on these wins because there's a ton of things we still need to work on. We're nowhere near where we want to be as a team right now."
That doesn't mean Duddy is putting the strong start to the season completely in his rearview mirror.
"It definitely feels good," he said. "Confidence is crucial for any team, especially for a young team like us. It's not really the feeling that we're winning but more the feeling that we're starting to put together some consistency and playing the style of hockey we know we can play."
There will certainly be tests in the coming weeks, too. After facing the 14th-ranked Wildcats this weekend, OSU travels to take on No. 4 Michigan for two games in Ann Arbor. After Thanksgiving, the Buckeyes have a two-game series at No. 11 Lake Superior State before finishing the first half with a home-and-home with rival Miami.
"We're getting into a tough part of the schedule," Osiecki said. "You're going to see the ups and downs and you're going to see the youthfulness."
Get Up, Get Going
The Friday contest between the Buckeyes and Wildcats will face off at 12:05 p.m. because of a basketball game that night in Value City Arena. Most college hockey games start in the afternoon or evening – the next earliest start on the OSU docket is 5:05 p.m. – so usual routines will be out the window.
The good news is that Ohio State has switched to morning practices this year, so team members should be used to lacing up the skates early in the day.
"For game day your routine is a bit different but in terms of actually playing in the morning, that's what we're doing every day," Duddy said. "It shouldn't be too different. The key is not to let it get in your head. You approach the game the exact same way. You get a good night's sleep the night before and you just are on the ice quicker during the day."
Most college football and basketball teams start numerous games each year at noon, so the hockey Buckeyes have some company in that regard.
Still, the routine will be changed. Instead of having a morning skate followed by a nap and a team meal, the squad will head to the rink early for game preparation. The change did prompt a few quips, as Heeter said he hoped there would be no 4 a.m. skate while Duddy said the eating options could be different.
"I'm interested to see," he said. "I'm down for some pasta for breakfast, but I don't know about the other guys. Maybe we'll have pancakes, something to get the carbs in us. I'm sure they'll have a good meal lined up."
Scouting The Visitors
Walt Kyle's Wildcats enter at 4-3-3, and the team's 1-2-3-2 record in the CCHA puts it in seventh place in the league, three points behind OSU, which is tied for fourth.
Justin Florek leads the team with six goals and 10 points, while Matt Thurber has a squad-high total of seven assists among his eight points. Stephan Vigier has five goals and Tyler Gron has four, while NMU's requisite high-scoring D-man is Kyle Follmer with seven points.
In net, Reid Ellington leads the squad with six starts. He has a 1.98 goals-against average and .934 save percentage. Jared Coreau's GAA is 3.10 in four starts.
In addition, the Marquette (Mich.) Mining Journal reports five players – Dylan Walchuk, Mitch Jones, Jake Baker, Eric Walker and Daniel Vandercook – have been arrested on charges they stole bicycles. No update on their status for the weekend is known, but Walchuk, Jones and Baker – the first a forward, the latter two defensemen – have played in every game.