The Buckeyes were aware even in October that – after a tough start to the season's schedule that included only seven of the first 24 games being held in Columbus – a chance to have four of five CCHA series in a row would be where the success of this campaign would be determined.
That meant that no matter how the first two-thirds of the season went, the team would have the chance to get hot in the crucial final weeks of the season heading into the playoffs.
"Absolutely," junior forward Chris Crane said at the time. "That's the time where playoff hockey mentality starts really clicking. We get to come home for those games, get a nice little streak going there, and it's good momentum going into the playoffs."
Suddenly, after an 8-11-5 start to the season that includes just one win in the last 10 games, that time is now.
Ohio State returns home for a two-game series tonight and tomorrow (7:05 p.m. starts) vs. Lake Superior State in Value City Arena that kicks off quite a homestand for the Buckeyes. OSU will be home four of the next five weekends against league foes, and if the season is going to turn out as more than another mid-table finish short of Joe Louis Arena, the run must begin against the Lakers.
"These are huge games," sophomore forward Max McCormick said. "I think we're right next to Lake State in the standings, and the top five get first-round byes (in the CCHA tournament). These are big games coming down to the wire here at the end of the season."
Ohio State does enter within striking distance of the teams immediately ahead of it. The Buckeyes' CCHA record of 7-6-3-1 puts them in seventh place with 25 points, just one behind Lake Superior State, two behind fifth-place Alaska and five behind fourth-place Ferris State. The Buckeyes have two games in hand of each of those squads.
"We have to come in like it's already playoffs and give it our all," defenseman Curtis Gedig said.
Ohio State hasn't played at home since taking only one point in a two-game series Dec. 14-15 vs. Miami (Ohio). On the season, Ohio State is just 2-4-1 at home, the only wins coming in a dominating two-game sweep of Northern Michigan on Nov. 16-17.
The sight of ice in Value City Arena on Wednesday morning was a good one for sore eyes, but the Buckeyes know they have to assert themselves at home to finish the year strong.
"We got out there first thing this morning and the first thing (goaltender) Collin Olson said – we were the first two guys here – and the first thing he said is, ‘It's just nice to be home, it's nice to be skating here,' " head coach Mark Osiecki said. "It's been a long time since we skated in here, and I think it showed a little bit today. I thought that there was somewhat of a feeling-out stage again coming into this building.
"It'll be nice to be home. I think we have to come in here and play with an attitude."
Looking For Goals
McCormick leads the CCHA with six third-period goals, but unfortunately, that's one of the few positive offense-related statistics there is for the Buckeyes.
Ohio State has 47 tallies in 24 games, a mark of 1.96 goals per game that is tied for last in the CCHA with Michigan State and 55th overall of 59 Division I teams.
The raw numbers aren't showing much signs of getting better, either. The Buckeyes have averaged exactly two goals per game in six contests since the holiday break, including two in each game last week while being swept at Northern Michigan.
So there might not sound like much reason to be optimistic, but Osiecki sees progress. For example, the Buckeyes had 35 total scoring chances last week vs. the Wildcats, and the goal total was only dulled by a number of posts hit by the Buckeyes and some good saves by NMU netminder Jared Coreau.
In addition, the Buckeyes are finally getting healthy. Defenseman Sam Jardine, who was expected to be a key person on the point on the power play, has returned from a long injury layoff for a lacerated left arm. In addition, D-man Devon Krogh – a senior who leads the Buckeyes in career points from the blue line – is back after various injuries, while fleet-footed freshman Anthony Greco (ankle) returned to the ice at Northern Michigan after missing 15 games.
The three haven't wasted much time getting on the scoresheet. Jardine has three assists in his last four games, while Krogh posted an assist last weekend at NMU and Greco scored a goal.
With those players back in the lineup, Osiecki was pleased with the offensive chances the Buckeyes had last week at Northern Michigan despite leaving with zero points.
"You come away empty-handed, but our guys generated a ton of offense – probably the most all year," the coach said. "Hopefully that bodes well for us down the stretch."
In Osiecki's mind, the thing missing is chemistry. Many of the Buckeyes' top offensive threats haven't played together for more than a couple of games this season, and with the full roster now on hand, the team is excited to see what might happen.
"That's very key," McCormick said. "We're getting some big guys back in the lineup. Greco is back up front, a lot of guys are back in the lineup now. I think we're starting to jell offensively. I think the only thing we're missing is putting some pucks in the back of the net."
Scouting The Lakers
Ohio State and Lake Superior State meet for the second two-game set of the season. The teams split a pair of decisions Nov. 23-24 in Sault Ste. Marie, with Ohio State capturing the first game, 4-1, behind 31 saves from Brady Hjelle and goals by Matt Johnson, Ryan Dzingel, McCormick and Crane. Lake State came back to win the finale, 3-2, as Dzingel and Darik Angeli scored. Tanner Fritz had four assists in the series.
Lake Superior State (13-12-1, 8-9-1-1) is 22nd in the PairWise rankings that determine the NCAA tournament field but not receiving votes in the USCHO.com top 20 poll.
Domenic Monardo leads the way with a 12-10-22 line, and his goal total is just one off the conference lead. Nick McParland has a team-high 13 assists and 19 points, while Chris Ciotti has a 8-6-14 line. Goaltenders Kevin Murdock and Kevin Kapalka have split time, with Murdock 8-7-0 with a 2.00 GAA and a .942 save percentage. Kapalka's totals are 5-5-1/2.91/.914.
The Lakers are just 3-7-1 away from the Soo.