A lot of things could be on the minds of the Ohio State men’s hockey players as the Buckeyes get ready to play tonight and tomorrow.
There’s the fact that Ohio State is in the stretch run of a playoff push that has it tied with Ferris State for fourth place in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.
It’s also senior weekend for the Buckeyes, so most players have their families in town as the five seniors on the squad will be honored in a Saturday night ceremony.
On top of that, OSU is playing rival Michigan, a team that is always circled on the calendar no matter how either squad is doing on the season.
So there are plenty of things that could get in the Buckeyes’ way as they try to extend a 5-1-2 run and clinch home ice in the CCHA quarterfinals against the Wolverines, but head coach Mark Osiecki has talked all season about how his team has focused only on the task at hand.
In other words, the Buckeyes just have to stay the course to be ready when the puck drops tonight at 6:35 (Big Ten Network) and tomorrow at 7:05.
“I think you don’t have to say much about Michigan coming in,” Osiecki said. “Obviously, that speaks for itself. Our guys are pretty fired up over that. We have to keep our emotions in check on that side of it.
“The harder part is parents weekend, senior weekend. It’s always a tough battle because there’s a lot of outside distractions that you don’t normally have. We’ll talk to them about putting that into a file and throwing it into a drawer and just worrying about ourselves.”
Defenseman Devon Krogh – one of the seniors that will be honored along with goalies Brady Hjelle and Jeff Michael, forward Alex Carlson and defenseman Brandon Martell – doesn’t expect the Buckeyes to have their eyes wandering come faceoff.
“It’s a big weekend for us,” Krogh said. “It’s our biggest rival. I think everyone is pretty focused and ready to go. I’m excited for the weekend.”
Earning the team’s first home quarterfinal series since the CCHA switched to its current playoff setup since 2006 is on the table, as OSU has two games in hand on Ferris State with two weekends to go.
Osiecki said the team doesn’t talk about the standings, leaving it up to each player to decide whether to pay attention. Krogh said he has only a vague idea of where the Buckeyes are at, but Hjelle pays a little bit closer look.
“I check every day even though it doesn’t change,” he said with a laugh. “We have a chance to get a bye for the first weekend if things go well and host for the second weekend. That’s huge for us. It’s always tough playing in somebody else’s barn.”
Wolverines Come To Town
Ohio State is having a better year than Michigan in the standings, but Osiecki isn’t taking anything for granted.
“They’re Michigan,” Osiecki said. “They’re good.”
The Wolverines head into this weekend’s series at 10-18-2 overall and in 10th place in the CCHA with a 7-15-2-2 mark. Ohio State has already clinched a better finish in the end-of-season CCHA standings than the Wolverines for the first time since 1986-87.
That was U-M head coach Red Berenson’s third season with the school. Four years later, in 1990-91, the Wolverines made their first NCAA tournament under Berenson and have qualified every year since, a streak in serious jeopardy this season.
The biggest issue for the Wolverines this year, it seems, is team defense. Michigan is just one of five teams in the nation to have ceded more than 100 goals, and the team’s mark of 3.63 tallies allowed per game is 57th of 59 teams in the nation and the worst total for any school in a major conference. The Wolverines haven’t won a game without scoring at least three goals all year.
The team has rotated three goaltenders all season but to no avail, as Steve Racine has the best goals-against average at 3.11 and Adam Janecyk has the best save percentage at .892. Jared Rutledge has started the last four games but has a GAA of 4.24 and a .854 save percentage.
Things have gotten to the point that Berenson told the Michigan Daily student newspaper this week that sophomore walk-on Luke Dwyer, who has never played a college game, might see action this weekend vs. OSU.
But the Buckeyes seem content to not sleep on the Wolverines, who are also 1-8-2 in road games. For one thing, the team has its defensive corps healthy for one of the few times this year, and the unit is headlined by U.S. World Juniors star Jacob Trouba and the highly regarded Jon Merril.
In addition, the Wolverines’ famous offensive punch is still pretty good. U-M has scored four or more goals in three straight games, and the team averages 2.9 goals per contest, good for second in the CCHA.
A.J. Treais leads the team with 11 goals, while Cristoval “Boo” Nieves has team highs of 15 assists and 23 points. Treais, Trouba (8-12-20) and Phil Di Giuseppe (6-14-20) each have 20 points while Alex Guptill adds 19 and Columbus Blue Jackets draft pick Kevin Lynch has 17.
“I know they’re real fast and they’re a good transition team, so that’s what I’m expecting,” Krogh said. “I know they aren’t having the year they thought they were going to have this year probably, but they’re always good. I think everyone in the locker room knows that.”
All eyes were on Alex Szczechura as he posted Ohio State’s second hat trick of the season last Saturday vs. Western Michigan – the team for which his brother, Paul, played – but the accomplishment was just the latest in a string of successes for the OSU junior.
Szczechura has scored nine goals in the last 14 games, which coincides with the time he was moved onto a line with sophomores Tanner Fritz and Max McCormick. The Buckeyes tried Anthony Greco, Ryan Dzingel, Matt Johnson, Darik Angeli and Chris Crane as the right wing with Fritz and McCormick during the first half but struck gold when Szczechura was added to the line after the holiday break.
“He’s a goal scorer,” Osiecki said. “He’s an offensive player, and at times earlier in the year when we would get him, no different than last year, he was fighting his way to get into the lineup. I think we knew as a staff that he was an offensive player, but he was fighting his way to earn that right to play on some offensive lines.
“He’s earned that right, and I think it’s important to play with the likes of a Dzingel or Fritzie or Max because he can score some goals. He’s got great instincts to make some plays with the puck but also very talented around the net.”
Szczechura has 12 points since being put on the line, while Fritz has 14 and McCormick has 11.
“Our line is clicking right now as well as our whole team,” Szczechura said. “I don’t know what’s going on. Pucks are going in for me.”
--Ohio State associate athletic director Chris Schneider confirmed to BSB that if Ohio State hosts playoff series, the games will be held in the OSU Ice Rink. The state high school girls basketball tournament will be held March 14-16 in Value City Arena, the same weekend the Buckeyes would have a chance to host quarterfinal matchups. Schneider said the school tried to move some things around and looked at playing at Nationwide Arena downtown but could not come up with a solution.
--OSU’s recent scoring explosion – 3.5 goals per game in the last eight – has vaulted Fritz and Dzingel to the top of the league’s offensive charts. Fritz and Dzingel, who each have 10 points in the last eight games, each have 25 total points in 24 CCHA games, which ties Miami’s Riley Barber for the league lead. Fritz’s 19 assists in league play are No. 1 in the league.
--The teams split last year’s season series. Ohio State swept Michigan in Yost Ice Arena in November before the Wolverines won two games in Ohio in January. The first was held in Value City Arena while the second game of the series was the Frozen Diamond Classic, played in Cleveland’s Progressive Field.
--Ohio State is tied for seventh in the NCAA in team defense, holding opponents to 2.22 goals a game. The squad has allowed one goal or less in 13 games this year.
--Gates open each night 90 minutes before each game rather than one hour. Fans who order food or soft drinks within the first 30 minutes of the gates being open can receive 50 percent off their order with a coupon available on OhioStateBuckeyes.com.
--Ohio State leads the country having played 1,955 minutes in 32 games. The Buckeyes have played seven games with full five-minute overtimes in addition to 25 games that have gone the usual 60 minutes. Ohio State is one of seven teams with seven ties this year, most in the NCAA.