There's the winged helmets buzzing down the ice. There's the seemingly ageless Red Berenson, college hockey icon, standing behind the bench in his Navy blue suit and sweater. There's the seemingly endless stream of talented Wolverines making their way to the National Hockey League.
That tradition includes a top-10 ranking every year, or so it seems. Michigan has made 21 straight appearances in the NCAA tournament, but this year's 12-8-4 squad sits ranked 15th in the country and is seventh in the CCHA standings heading into a two-game series with Ohio State.
In a twist of fate, the Buckeyes are the ones who enter this weekend's series – with a Big Ten Network game scheduled for tonight at 7:30 in Value City Arena before Sunday's big Frozen Diamond Faceoff in Cleveland – atop the CCHA standings and ranked second in the nation.
Included in the team's outstanding 14-4-3 start was a piece of history – the team's first two-game sweep of Michigan in Yost Ice Arena in Ann Arbor in 25 years. With that in mind – and given the obvious role reversal between the two squads this year – the Wolverines will likely want blood heading into the pair of matchups.
"I'm sure they'll be fired up," said OSU senior co-captain Sean Duddy, a native of Ann Arbor. "For a series like this where both teams are playing very well and it's a rivalry game, it doesn't take too much to get fired up, no matter what the records are or no matter what happened in the past.
"But from personal experience, when you lose to a team and you get another shot at them, you're going to be extremely fired up. I'm sure they're going to come guns blazing, ready to go at the top of their game, which means we have to be at the top of our game."
The Wolverines still pack the firepower that has made their offense one of the most feared in the nation over the past two decades. Five players have passed the 15-point mark, with David Wohlberg (10-11-21) and Chris Brown (8-13-21) leading the way and freshman Alex Guptill adding 10 tallies. Defensemen Lee Moffie has a team-high 16 assists and freshman Phil Di Giuseppe has eight goals and 15 points.
Seven other players have reached the 10-point mark, while the team has been boosted by the return of sophomore defenseman Jon Merrill, a second-round NHL draft pick who had 25 points last year but missed the first 22 games this year while suspended.
"He's a world-class player," OSU head coach Mark Osiecki said. "He's going to play in the NHL for a long period of time. That helps them out. That team is a top-five team in the country, no doubt about it. Obviously you don't want to be peaking early, and I'm sure Red would probably say it, they're doing just fine and they're going to continue to get better."
Ohio State's earlier wins against the Wolverines were certainly not alike. The Buckeyes limited Michigan's transition game in the opener, got 29 saves from senior Cal Heeter and received two goals from freshman Darik Angeli on the way to a 2-1 victory in the opening game Nov. 18. A night later, the teams went up and down the ice, with Ohio State eventually taking a 6-5 victory behind two-goal nights from freshman Ryan Dzingel and sophomore Alex Lippincott.
This time around, the Buckeyes know they likely won't win many shootouts against the Wolverines, meaning the hope is the team defense – which is fourth in the nation with 2.05 goals allowed per game – will keep the Maize and Blue in check.
"They have a lot of skill," Duddy said. "Their forwards up front, they can all handle the puck pretty well. They have good size and pretty good speed. From a defensive standpoint, you have to hit them. You have to keep it simple. If you try to play stick-checks on them, they'll walk right around you, and if you leave them enough space they'll make plays.
"We have to take time and space away from them and make sure we're taking the body because those guys can really play."
Bounce Back From BG
There's also the inconvenient fact for the Buckeyes that they haven't played their best hockey since returning from the team's holiday break.
Ohio State went into the time off on an 11-1-1 run that vaulted them to the nation's No. 1 spot in the PairWise rankings that determine the NCAA field.
After the break, things haven't been quite as good. The Buckeyes opened with a 4-2 win against mid-major Robert Morris before tying games last weekend at last-place Bowling Green by scores of 2-2 (thanks to a late comeback) and 1-1 (thanks to a last-minute goal allowed). The Falcons also won both shootouts, sending the first-place Buckeyes home with only two of six possible CCHA points.
In the process, Ohio State extended its CCHA lead from five to seven points with second-place Notre Dame and Western Michigan in nonconference play, but the team missed a chance to truly put distance between itself and its closest competition.
"They beat us at our own game, to be honest with you," Duddy said. "It could be a good thing. It kind of refocused us. You have to take some shots sometime during a season to show you how you need to play. So we've really focused on working on the things that we did not do well so that we can prepare for Michigan this weekend and have good success."
Osiecki has said he had sensed a bit of a shift in his team since it came back from the break. Teams are now gunning for the Buckeyes' young squad – there are 12 freshmen and only four seniors – and the time away from the rink might have allowed players to get big heads and forget what got them their early success.
"I think (we're missing) a little bit of our hunger," Osiecki said. "The compete level probably didn't go as high as a group. Individually, we competed, but it wasn't as a collective group of five guys on the ice. That was our success, our depth was our success, and we have to get back to that. The guys felt that."
Heeter agreed with his head coach.
"We have to get back to what was making us win in the first half," the senior said. "It was hard work. We were going out and outworking teams every night. We can get back to that and I have no doubts that we will. It's just a matter of time before we find that stride again."
Freshman Line Clicking
There wasn't much publicity when USHLers Nick Oddo and Darik Angeli committed to Ohio State, but the freshmen have been among Ohio State's most consistent forwards this year.
Playing on a line with fellow freshman Tanner Fritz recently, the two have been among the Buckeyes' most clutch scorers, showing the adjustment to the college level is fading as the young Buckeyes grow up.
"I would say the first couple of games getting adjusted, it was pretty tough, but after that, I feel really comfortable right now," Oddo said. "I just do my part, try to keep it simple, make plays."
Oddo was recently named the CCHA Gongshow Gear Rookie of the Month for December. Oddo had three goals and two assists to tie for the team lead in points and was also plus-5, while all three of his goals were scored within a minute after a tally by the opposing team. On the year, he has five goals, four helpers and a plus-6 rating.
"I think Nick probably is a great example of what we've been talking about for our program and where we want to get to with our culture and habits," Osiecki said. "He's not the prettiest of skaters, not the fastest skater that we have. He's extremely smart, does everything right away from the rink."
Angeli's highest point was his two-goal game in the win at Michigan, and he leads the team with a trio of game-winning goals. For the year he's third on the squad with six goals and fourth with 11 points.
"I didn't think it was going to come this early, but I'm not going to complain about it," he said of his goal-scoring touch. "I'm going to keep working hard and getting better each day and have the coaches push me even harder. It's working out pretty well right now."
Osiecki has been impressed with what the 6-3, 200-pound power forward has brought to the table.
"He's offensively gifted, and we're trying to make him into a complete hockey player," the coach said. "His future is very bright. I think that the sky is the limit a little bit for him."
**With a tally against Robert Morris and another in the second game against BG, sophomore Chris Crane became the team's leading scorer on the year with 12 goals. Senior Danny Dries is second with 11.
**Freshman Max McCormick is starting to find his stride after missing eight games earlier this year because of injury. He had a hand in each goal at Bowling Green, tying the score in the first game in the last three minutes with a power-play goal and assisting on OSU's other two tallies.
**Duddy has 11 assists on the year after having only 11 points (one goal, 10 helpers) in his career entering the season. He had a seven-game assist streak snapped in the second game at Bowling Green.
** Heeter ranks fourth nationally in winning percentage (.794) and save percentage (.932) and is ninth in goals-against average (2.02).
**Ohio State is 6-2-1 at home this year and is outscoring teams 31-15 in Value City Arena.