Now comes the biggest test. With program alumni in town for Alumni Weekend, the Buckeyes will face league leader and eighth-ranked Notre Dame tonight and tomorrow night at Value City Arena.
"It's a challenge, and I think you have to be happy for a challenge," said OSU senior co-captain Peter Boyd. "That's the only way you can see how personally you can grow and as a team you can grow. I'm excited for the opportunity to play these guys."
The last team to come into Columbus with such credentials was rival Miami only two weeks ago, and the Buckeyes sent the No. 7 RedHawks home with their first sweep in the series since 2004. In the last home series before that, OSU (12-9-2, 7-7-2-2) split with Michigan, and an October series at Ferris State ended with three points per side.
However, OSU head coach Mark Osiecki had a blunt assessment of the Buckeyes' chances against the Fighting Irish, who enter at 12-5-1-1 in the league.
"They're coached well, they have good talent and they skate well," he said. "Literally, they should blow us out of the water, if you're looking at it. They've had consistent recruiting classes here, and look what they've done NCAA wise. They've been there, they have that experience. But can our guys go out there and compete? We'll find out."
Notre Dame has emerged as one of the top powers in college hockey under head coach Jeff Jackson, who was hired before the 2005-06 season. Jackson is assisted by OSU's all-time leading scorer, Paul Pooley, whose No. 22 hangs in the rafters of Value City Arena. Under the direction of those two, Notre Dame won the CCHA in 2007 and '09 and made the national championship game in 2008.
The lone bump in the road for the Blue and Gold came a season ago when they struggled to a ninth-place finish and then were eliminated in the first round of the CCHA playoffs by Ohio State. The Buckeyes swept the Fighting Irish at the OSU Ice Rink, ending ND's season with an 8-2 triumph in the clinching game.
A large freshman class has helped the turnaround, with first-year player T.J. Tynan leading the way with 15 goals and 33 points. Freshman Anders Lee has added 14 tallies and 26 points, while senior Ryan Guentzel has 22 assist and 28 points. Depth is also big for the Fighting Irish, who have 12 players with double digits in points.
Ohio State has posted a 6-1-1 record in the last eight games, but this weekend will be another measuring point for a program making progress in Osiecki's first season.
"I think it's fun," Osiecki said. "It's great for our guys. You don't have to say too much during the week. They're pretty focused. They know what's coming at them."
Heeting Up: OSU goaltender Cal Heeter earned national player of the week honors after allowing only two goals against Miami during OSU's last home series, earning recognition Osiecki said was long overdue.
"It's more than just that weekend," Osiecki said. "It's been pretty consistent all year, and our guys feed off of that. You play different if you're struggling in net, but our guys have a lot of confidence in Cal, and I think likewise Cal has a lot of confidence in our players."
The only player to see action between the pipes this year, Heeter has matched the team's record at 12-9-2 on the year. Playing the most minutes of any CCHA netminder, Heeter has posted a goals-against average of 2.31 and a save percentage of .919.
The St. Louis native credits Osiecki's arrival before this season as one of the reasons for his play.
"I'd say the new coaching staff really just changed a lot of the mentality and the work ethic for the entire team, around the rink and away from the rink," he said. "I think that's played a big role in my success this year. I really work a lot harder off the ice and on the ice this year, and it's paid off in games."
He has also been playing well at home – in OSU's last four games in Value City arena, Heeter has given up only six goals.
Home Cookin': Ohio State has hosted crowds of more than 5,000 fans in each of the last four home games vs. U-M and Miami, and with a name like Notre Dame coming in, big crowds should be back in Value City Arena for the weekend series.
That's music to the ears of Osiecki, whose first three league series came on the road.
"I think it's great to be able to build that momentum," he said. "I think our fans have helped us and given us a lift. A lot of our players have fed off the fans, and they've been tremendous."
The crowd caught the notice of Miami head coach Enrico Blasi during OSU's last home series, especially after OSU gave away cowbells before the Friday night contest.
"That was probably one of the best crowds I've seen in my 12 years at Ohio State," Blasi said. "It's electric. It's fun for both teams."
It has helped that the free admission offered to students has started to result in gains. More than 1,000 students were at the first game against Miami, with the program falling just shy of that number for the second game.
"People have been more excited," Block "O" student section leader Ryan Studley said. "We used to have a few people complain about people standing up in the front, but now everybody realizes we stand up for hockey too. We have a good team. Guys out there are trying hard and we need to try hard in the stands to help them out as much as we can."
The crowd of 6,951 for the last home game vs. the RedHawks is the most for any indoor CCHA game this season.