Buckeye Icers Embark On Critical Stretch

With the end of the regular season coming, the Ohio State men's hockey team faces a critical stretch of six home games in eight to end the campaign. That starts this weekend as the Buckeyes face Michigan State in a two-game set. The Spartans are in 10th place, which could be good news for an OSU team trying to break a three-game losing streak.

If the Ohio State men's hockey team is going to make a run at a top-five spot in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association and a first-round playoff bye, the run has to start this weekend.

The eighth-place Buckeyes play six of their final eight games at home in the final month of the season, starting with a two-game set with Michigan State. The Spartans enter Columbus in 10th place in the CCHA for contests tonight at 7:35 (live, Big Ten Network) and tomorrow at 7:05.

"It's all there for us," senior co-captain Peter Boyd said. "The league is very tight this year, and it's good that we're playing six of eight at home. The fans have been great, and hopefully they can keep coming and supporting us. That's been a big effect for us, but we're just looking to get back on track here."

The Buckeyes (13-12-2, 8-10-2-2, 28 points) are trying to bounce back from a three-game losing streak that has dropped them in the standings. After falling to Notre Dame at home in the second of a two-game set two weeks ago, OSU went on the road to Alaska to close January and dropped a pair of games – a close 1-0 loss in the opener in overtime followed by a 6-2 final in the second game.

"We played extremely well on Friday," head coach Mark Osiecki said. "It's a tough game to stomach when you only give up seven scoring chances. We played really well, we really did. And then Saturday I think it's just tough. They came out and played well. I think they're used to the travel more so than we are and I think the travel caught up with us to be honest with you."

The good news is that the Buckeyes are still within shouting distance of the teams in front of them. Western Michigan, in fourth with a seven-point edge on OSU, might be impossible to catch for the final second-round home-ice slot, but fifth place is certainly in play.

Alaska sits there with 33 points – a five-point edge on the Buckeyes – but Ohio State has two games in hand. OSU has also played two fewer games than Ferris State, which is sixth with 32 points, and is just a point behind seventh-place Northern Michigan with eight games left for each squad.

The home advantage should be good for the Buckeyes, who are 6-3-0 in Value City Arena. But what would be best for OSU is returning to the style that allowed it to go 4-2-0 against the top three teams in the league – Notre Dame, Michigan and Miami – in its home arena.

When the Buckeyes have been at their best, they have played a defensive style that has limited dangerous opportunities against goaltender Cal Heeter. On offense, the Buckeyes are at their best an opportunistic team that takes advantage of chances and battles for goals from close range.

Instead, the Buckeyes have been outscored 11-3 in the last three games. Heeter was finally pulled for the first time all season last weekend in game two vs. Alaska after letting the struggles get to him for the first time.

"We let Alaska get to our net," Boyd said. "We hope to protect that better this weekend."

With high-scoring forward Danny Dries moved to defense because of injuries, the Buckeyes have also struggled to score goals. After scoring a season-high six against Notre Dame in the series opener two Fridays ago – most from close range – the Buckeyes identified a key problem while scoring only a goal per game in the last three contests.

"We're not going to have high-flying, highlight goals most nights," said senior Sergio Somma, one of three Buckeyes with more than 10 goals along with Dries and John Albert. "I think we have to get to the net more. We have to get to the dirty areas and get rebounds."

The Buckeyes and Spartans (11-13-4, 7-11-2-0) split a series in November in East Lansing.

Come-ly And Go
Michigan State's visit to Columbus could very well be the last as a head coach for Rick Comley. The Spartans skipper announced his retirement, effective at the end of the season, last week.

Since the announcement, Michigan State lost at Ferris State before beating Michigan by a 2-1 score Saturday night in Joe Louis Arena as part of Hockey Day in Michigan.

"While the end of my Michigan State career is on the horizon, we owe it to these players to continue with business as usual," he said at the time of his announcement. "We have two important games this weekend, and four more series after that – and each game is important. That is, and will remain, our focus in these coming weeks."

A two-time national coach of the year, Comley has won three national titles, most recently in 2007 while behind the Michigan State bench. His 779 victories place him fourth in college hockey history.

Comley started as an assistant to former MSU coach and athletic director Ron Mason at Lake Superior State in the 1972-73 season. One year later, he took over for Mason and spent three years at LSSU, winning the '74 CCHA title and NAIA national title, before moving on to the Northern Michigan program he built from nothing.

His crowning achievement in 26 years in Marquette was the 1991 national title, and the Wildcats won five league titles – splitting time between the CCHA and Western Collegiate Hockey Association – in his tenure.

He moved to MSU after the 2002 season to again replace Mason, but the Spartans have been up and down. Though Comley's teams won the 2006 CCHA tournament title and the '07 national crown, the Spartans have missed the NCAA tournament each of the past two seasons, and some fans have been rumbling for a change.

"I was fully aware of what (following Mason) was going to be like," Comley said according to USCHO.com. "Totally. But you don't pass up that opportunity. It's a special opportunity. I'm glad I did it, and I'm glad we won the national championship. Now we've just got to find a way to finish this year right."

While Comley's tenure in East Lansing hasn't been all peaches and cream, what haven't been questioned are his contributions to the game and his integrity as a person.

"Rick is a tremendous hockey coach," Osiecki said. "He's well respected in the sport, and it's fun to try to learn from a guy like that. It stinks because a young coach like myself that knows him, you can really bounce a lot of different things off of him and learn from him, so from a personal standpoint I'm sad to see him go."

Ready To Rally
When Osiecki took over, he talked of having a team that would be conditioned well enough to play well in the third period and overtime.

That has come to fruition so far. Ohio State is outscoring its opposition 35-22 in the third period this season, and the Buckeyes have staged a series of memorable comebacks to snatch points out of tough situations.

"The best thing that we've talked about from day one is that we're going to be a highly conditioned team and we're going to be able to play third periods of games and play it well," Osiecki said. "That's been our focus."

The Buckeyes already have wins through third-period comebacks against Ferris State, Michigan State, Michigan, Bowling Green and Miami, while late comebacks against Alaska and Western Michigan led to two points in the standings after OSU won the shootout after overtime.

"Every game we play in, there's no doubt I feel like we can win or have a chance to win no matter how many goals we're down by," Albert said. "It's just a confidence that our team has this year."

The Buckeyes are also 3-1-2 in overtime this year and have won both CCHA shootouts, earning valuable points along the way.

Albert and fellow senior Sergio Somma have been the most prolific targets in the late going, scoring seven goals apiece in the third period. Junior forward Danny Dries has added six tallies in the third and had the OT winner at Bowling Green, one of his team-best three game-winning goals.

On the flip side, Ohio State has needed some late-game comebacks because of early struggles. While the Buckeyes have 35 third-period goals and three more in OT, they have been outscored 45-39 in the opening two frames.

"There's not much you can do about it," Osiecki said. "Obviously you'd like to go out and score goals. At times, that's not maybe our gift that we have right now."

Toss Those Teddies!
Ohio State will be hosting a Teddy Bear Toss during Saturday's game against Michigan State. Fans are encouraged to throw stuffed animals on the ice after OSU's opening goal, and the toys will then be collected and delivered to kids at the Ronald McDonald House. Fans can either bring teddy bears wrapped in plastic or purchase them at the game.

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