There’s no denying a lot of things went right for the Ohio State men’s hockey team during the first half of the season.
There’s also no denying the opposite has happened since the calendar turned.
So it stands the reason the true abilities of the squad sit somewhere in between, and it’s not far-fetched to think that’s right where the Buckeyes are right now – with a 14-8-5 record and ranked 10th in the country going into a Friday-Saturday series with Michigan State at Value City Arena.
That’s also good enough to put the Buckeyes right in the thick of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association race. Ohio State held first place in the conference until last weekend but still sits just one point behind Ferris State and tied with Miami (Ohio) and Western Michigan for the second spot in the standings.
With that in mind, Ohio State enters the last month of the regular season in a fairly new position – in the race. Though the Buckeyes made the NCAA tournament in 2009, this is the first time in a long while the team has a legitimate chance at the league title entering February.
“If you’re not excited to be playing for hardware right now, not excited about the position that we could potentially be in, then we shouldn’t be playing the game,” senior co-captain Sean Duddy said. “I think everybody in the locker room is pretty excited. I think we all know we have the chance to do some great things.
To do so, OSU will have to turn around a winless skid that reached 0-for-January last weekend at Lake Superior State. The Lakers took the first game 1-0 before the teams drew the series finale 4-4, after which LSSU won the shootout.
That meant the Buckeyes – who were ranked second in the national polls just three weeks ago – took zero wins, four losses and four ties during the month. Ohio State lost all four shootouts as well, meaning they took only four of 24 possible CCHA points.
Still, the team sees some positives, especially in the way it played during the past two weekends against Ferris State and Lake Superior State. The performance in the Soo was particularly encouraging despite the fact the Buckeyes left the Canadian border town with only one point.
“They know they played well at Lake State,” head coach Mark Osiecki said. “Sometimes it just doesn’t fall your way. You don’t know why. You can’t answer that question, but really the guys walking away from there, they should hold their heads up high. They played extremely well.”
Osiecki added that one of the main concerns now is that the team must also not let the winless run submarine its confidence. Even though the coaches have talked about how the team has been looking more like its old self in the last few games, it’s sometimes not easy for a squad boasting 12 freshmen to take that message to heart when the scoreboard isn’t going the right way.
“The biggest thing is trying not to let our enthusiasm go away,” Osiecki said. “We’ve got that excitement. We have the young and dumb mentality. We need that enthusiasm. That’s the only fear that we have is (we’ll lose that). We want our guys to be energetic, have a lot of enthusiasm, have fun coming to the rink, and we should have that having 20 underclassmen.”
Still, to say the team is excited about turning the page on January would be an understatement. In addition to the tough results of late, the Buckeyes ran into a travel situation on the way back from Lake Superior State that necessitated an overnight stay in Gaylord, Mich. Instead of arriving back in Columbus in the early hours of Sunday morning, the Buckeyes got back closer to 7 p.m. after what Osiecki called “the road trip from hell.”
It has to get better from there, right?
The biggest surprise when it comes to true freshman Max McCormick might be that it has taken him so long to make the impact on the squad he’s having right now.
McCormick came to Ohio State as a highly regarded player who was chosen in the sixth round of the 2011 NHL draft by the Ottawa Senators after a junior career that included the 2010 Wisconsin Mr. Hockey honor and a bid in the USHL All-Star Game last year.
But the first half of the season wasn’t that kind, as nagged by a foot injury, he finished with only two goals and four assists by the holiday break. Things sure have turned of late, though, as McCormick exploded in January with team-high totals of five goals – including a hat trick Saturday at Lake Superior State – and three assists in eight games.
“That was exciting,” the soft-spoken Wisconsin native said of the hat trick. “I had some good guys on my line that were making some nice plays and I was just fortunate enough to be in the right spot at the right time. It was just fun.”
After scoring three points in his fourth career game Oct. 15 in an upset at then-No. 2 Notre Dame, McCormick went on the shelf for eight games with the foot injury. He admits it took him some time to get his game back where he wanted it upon his return.
“I think it took me a couple of weekends to get back at it,” he said. “I think I struggled a bit at first but then I got back in the right way of things. I’ve settled in and I’m starting to play some consistent hockey.”
Osiecki has started to see what he expected out of McCormick upon recruiting him out of Sioux City of the USHL, where he had 21 goals and 21 assists a season ago.
“He’s getting back to somewhat normal and moving his feet,” Osiecki said. “We knew Max would end up on the score sheet. I think his compete level is really high. When you have an injury, it’s going to take you a while to get back.”
**The Buckeyes and Spartans already played this season, meeting Oct. 20-21 in East Lansing. Michigan State won the opening game by a 3-0 score before the Buckeyes came back to post a 5-3 win, a triumph that was the first of an 11-game unbeaten run for the Scarlet and Gray.
**MSU sits eighth in the 11-team CCHA standings but is only seven points behind OSU at 8-9-3-2 (13-11-4 overall). Sparty is led by sophomore forward Lee Reimer’s 8-18-26 line, while sophomore Greg Wolfe and senior Brett Perlini have added 21 points apiece. Senior Mike Merrifield leads the squad with 11 goals and junior defenseman Torey Krug is one of the top two-way threats in the league at 6-13-19. Senior Drew Palmisano (5-6-3, 2.77 GAA) and sophomore Will Yanakeff (8-5-1, 2.35) split time in net.
**For the second week in a row, the Buckeyes will be playing the team one spot out of the 20-team USCHO.com rankings.
**Duddy was just named one of 10 finalists for the Senior CLASS Award, given to the top senior in each sport that excels most in the areas of community, classroom, character and competition. Fans can vote for him here.
**Saturday’s game will serve as the season’s Teddy Bear Toss night. Fans are encouraged to toss stuffed animals onto the ice after OSU’s first goal, and the toys will be collected and donated to the local Ronald McDonald House afterward. Last year’s inaugural event pulled in more than 500 toys.