Thursday, October 15, 2009

#3 Denver at Ohio State - October 15-16, 2009

At the start of the 2008-09 season, expectations for the Ohio State men's ice hockey team were relatively subdued. Picked to finish seventh by the CCHA coaches and ninth by the media in respective preseason polls, not much was expected out of coach John Markell's (Bowling Green '79) young Buckeye squad that featured just 3 seniors and a whopping 22 freshmen or sophomores. However, as the year progressed, the team matured and began to come together sparked by a change in net. After suffering successive 7-3 drubbings at the hands of Miami and Lake Superior State, Markell changed starting netminders by replacing junior Joe Palmer (Yorkville, N.Y.) with sophomore Dustin Carlson (Lake Forest, Minn.). Led by senior forward Corey Elkins (West Bloomfield, Mich.), sophomore forward John Albert (Concord, Ohio) and highly touted freshman forward Zac Dalpe (Paris, Ont.), the Buckeyes finished fifth in the CCHA and made their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2005.

Overall, the Buckeyes return
five players who scored 25 or more points and the aforementioned Dustin Carlson, from last season's NCAA Tournament team. Juniors John Albert, Hunter Bishop, Peter Boyd and Sergio Somma, and sophomore Zac Dalpe lead the Buckeyes at forward. Defensemen Shane Sims and Matt Bartkowski each netted 20 or more points last season. Carlson posted a 21-12-3 record with a 2.50 GAA and .917 Sv%. The Buckeyes finished the '08-'09 season with an 8-3 loss to eventual national champion Boston University and a solid 23-15-4 record.

While last season did not end the way the Buckeyes would have preferred, Coach Markell left a lasting impression of the experience by helping create expectations for this year. Said Markell, “That’s a pretty young team that now has the knowledge and foundation to know how to get into the NCAA tournament. It’s a tremendous foundation for us. It’s a tremendous learning experience as long as we use it the right way.”

As the long summer of land training and golf gave way to the start of classes and crisp fall mornings, the Buckeyes were pegged by both the CCHA coaches and media to finish fourth in 2009-10, gain a first round bye and host a second round CCHA playoff series at Schottenstein Center.
But, with lofty expectations comes additional pressure.

Fresh off the release of the CCHA's preseason polls, Ohio State proceeded to drop their exhibition opener at the OSU Ice Arena 3-2 in overtime to the University of Western Ontario. Unlike their American counterparts, Canadian colleges typically do not showcase the best talent available as most are gobbled up by major junior teams north of the border. Yet, what to make of an exhibition loss? Said, Coach Markell, "This was a good game to break down some tape. We can show the guys what was effective and what was not effective. Give props to the great opposition; they were a good team. I saw some good things from the young kids along with seeing some things where they have to get used to the league. I liked Johnny Albert's line and I liked (Zac) Dalpe's line, but they didn't get much time on the ice because of the PK unit."

Last weekend, Ohio State opened the start of the 2009-10 regular season by hosting Quinnipiac University from the East Coast Athletic Conference Hockey League (ECAC) at Schottenstein Center. Picked to finish 10th in the 12-team league by, expecations were low for the Bobcats entering the season. Add that the ECAC is generally considered a weaker sister to the WCHA and the CCHA and the Buckeyes had to be feeling good about their chances. But, as we know, that's why they play the games. The Buckeyes were swept by Quinnipiac losing 4-2 on Thursday, and despite holding a 1-0 lead and 25 shots to 6 advantage after the first period Friday, lost 3-1 on a shorthanded goal by Quinnipiac's Eric Lampe. It should be noted that while Ohio State's roster is comprised mainly of sophomores and juniors, Quinnipiac suited up 10 freshmen and their best player, 24-year old senior captain Jean-Marc Beaudoin did not even make the trip, remaining in Hamden, Conn. because his wife was about to give birth to their first child. Echoing the need to sustain energy and pressure throughout games, Markell was expectedly subdued after Friday's loss. "In the first period we played well. We were just unable to sustain it. We've got to educate ourselves on how to keep it going for a whole 60 minutes. We get tired and we start to play poorly and it's not enough. We made our goal tonight the way we wanted to. Now we just need more from the players. It's disappointing."

Unfortunately for Ohio State, things do not get any easier with the #3 ranked Denver Pioneers and their 7 national championships invading Schottenstein Center and Nationwide Arena tonight and tomorrow at 7pm respectively.

Denver coach George Gwozdecky (Wisconsin '78) is no stranger to Ohio. In fact, it was the hiring of Gwodecky at Miami University in 1989 that effectively saved their program. In 1993, he lead the then Miami Redskins to their first ever CCHA regular season championship and first berth in the NCAA Tournament, a team that featured current Miami head coach Enrico Blasi.

But, Gwozdecky will undoubtedly remember Ohio, and Columbus in particular, even more fondly for Schottenstein Center was the site of the 2005 Frozen Four where DU won the second of back-to-back national championships defeating North Dakota by a score of 4-1.

On paper, this weekend's series looks like a mismatch. Ohio State enters the game winless while DU managed a split at home against 2009 Frozen Four participant Vermont. However, last year's series in Denver resulted in a split with DU taking the first game 3-1 while the Buckeyes rallied for a 4-3 victory in game 2 meaning the Buckeyes know they can play with the Pioneers. But, consider that Coach George Gwozdecky owns two national titles during his tenure and Ohio State has made the Frozen Four only once - and that was more than 10 years ago. Even more shocking, DU boasts a program-high 13 players who have already been draf
ted by NHL teams including arguably the nation's top recruiting class to add to a squad that earned a #1 seed in last year's NCAA Tournament. In fact, DU returns 21 letterwinners, including six seniors and its top seven scorers, from last season. The Pioneers are led by seniors Rhett Rakhshani (0-4=4) and Tyler Ruegesegger (2-1=3) and sophomores Joe Colborne (2-0=2) and Patrick Wiercioch (1-1=2). In addition, DU was ranked #1 in the preseason in the Sports poll and picked to finish first in the always tough WCHA. You can see why this will be a tough matchup for the Buckeyes who must show more than they have to this point in the young season.

One thing that would help the Buckeyes this weekend would be a decent fan turnout. Last week's attendance at the Schott was in a word, embarrassing. Thursday night's game drew around 1,100 and Friday, just 1,700 souls decided to show up to watch the Bobcats and Buckeyes. Considering the Schott holds over 17,000 for hockey, a crowd of 1,000 in a building that large does little to bolster home-ice advantage. And, for the first time OSU is admitting students free of charge so there is no reason the building isn't more full. Starting tonight, the Buckeye icers need your support as they tackle the best the west has to offer.

Fearless predictions --
Having seen the Pioneers in the NCAA Tournament drop their first round game to the Miami RedHawks proved to me they are beatable. Goaltender Marc Cheverie is not overly impressive and the Pioneers with all their talent aren't overly physical - a trait the Buckeyes almost always possess. I'll call a split this weekend with a desperate Ohio State team grabbing their first win Friday night.

Thursday - 7pm - Schottenstein Center
Denver 4
Ohio State 3

Friday - 7pm - Nationwide Arena
Ohio State 4
Denver 3

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