"It almost seems like it's been since last year," head coach Mark Osiecki said with a chuckle.
In fact, the Buckeyes' last home game was a season ago. The Buckeyes last took the Value City Arena ice for a varsity contest Feb. 25 to close the 2011-12 regular season. That game vs. Miami (Ohio), as well as the two ensuing CCHA playoff games at Notre Dame, was a loss as the Buckeyes saw a once-promising season come to a disappointing close.
This season hasn't quite gotten off to the same flying start as last year – OSU was 14-4-1 at Christmas break and moved all the way up to No. 2 in the rankings at one point – but the Buckeyes see potential.
Ohio State is 2-2-2 overall and has four points in two CCHA games after starting the season at then-No. 12 Minnesota Duluth, then-No. 20 Quinnipiac and conference rival Bowling Green.
The travel – especially that of the first two weeks – hasn't been easy, and the Buckeyes' worries were compounded by a number of injuries in the opening three weeks. But now with an open week in the schedule complete, Ohio State opens the home slate tonight and tomorrow at 7 p.m. each night with games against visiting conference rival Alaska at Value City Arena.
"It seems like since the season has started, it's been go, go, go – tough travel for us," Osiecki said. "I think it took its toll on our bodies a little bit. We were a little banged up. It was nice to have a break last weekend and find a way to get our bodies healed up and get more players back on the ice in practice."
Ohio State was extremely banged up by the end of the Bowling Green series. Senior defenseman Devon Krogh and junior blueliner Curtis Gedig – by far OSU's two most experienced defenders – didn't make the trip, while D-men Craig Dalrymple and Al McLean and forward Nick Oddo were hurt against the Falcons.
Osiecki said McLean and Oddo, a pair of sophomores, will be out but everyone else will either play or be in the discussion as OSU takes on the Nanooks (4-3-1, 2-2-0-0 CCHA).
When the Buckeyes hit the ice, it will signal the return of big-time hockey to the capital city, which has been without since Ohio State has been on the road for the first month of the season while the NHL's Columbus Blue Jackets have been off the ice thanks to an owners' lockout.
Ohio State received an attendance bump of more than 2,000 fans the last time the professional league was in a yearlong lockout, but that squad was coming off a CCHA championship and had one of the best seasons in school history with 27 wins, while this year's group is still trying to reestablish itself as a national contender.
Either way, for those heading to Value City Arena over the weekend, here's what to expect:
**A young squad: Ohio State was green a season ago and even greener this year after the graduation of a quintet of high-profile veterans. This year's team has only four seniors, and in that group, only Krogh has played more than 60 goals in his career.
Meanwhile, the Buckeyes have 10 freshmen, six true freshmen and a redshirt freshman on the squad. To cope with that, Osiecki hasn't named full-time team captains, preferring to rotate that honor among squad members in the early going.
This weekend, that will fall to junior forwards Travis Statchuk and Alex Lippincott and sophomore forward Max McCormick.
"We'll continue with that rotation through Christmas and maybe even through that break and then see how it's going to shake out," Osiecki said. "We like that feel right now, making it more of a true team. Everyone is leaders in the locker room, and everyone has really grasped that. It's not just the guys who have worn a letter on their sweater. You go around the room and everyone has done a good job."
**A skilled but inconsistent team: Perhaps not surprising given their youth, the Buckeyes have had ups and downs, scoring only 11 goals in six games but giving up only 15 as well.
However, Osiecki was very excited with the way his team played at Bowling Green while earning a 1-0 win and a 3-3 tie followed by a shootout loss. A couple of goals were disallowed, showing perhaps more firepower than the numbers would indicate, and Osiecki sees the potential for a quick breakout.
"We like our skill level, we like our speed," the third-year head coach said. "It's a different feel than it was last year. You can even see with our power play. It's still coming, we're still tweaking it a little bit, but it's certainly played a lot better and I think that's our youth, finding a way to jell it all together in terms of their confidence within each other."
Ohio State has gotten a few good performances so far, including a team-high four points from McCormick, a team-best three tallies from sophomore Matt Johnson and two goals apiece from second-year players Ryan Dzingel and Tanner Fritz. But there's still potential for more – especially from junior Chris Crane, who had a team-high 14 goals last year – and the Buckeyes hope it's coming.
"Coach has put together some good lines," said Dzingel, who led OSU with 17 assists last year. "We're really clicking. I think Friday night will be the start of something good."
**A staunch defense in front of two goalies: After giving up six goals in the season opener at a fired up Duluth squad, the Buckeyes have ceded just nine tallies in the last five games.
That mark is even more impressive considering the rash of injuries to hit the blue line, and the Buckeyes are seeing solid, fundamental team play at the back.
"We're doing some pretty good things," Osiecki said. "Obviously there are going to be breakdowns in every game, and we try to make fewer than the other team. But our goaltenders have played very well, and our guys in front of them have played better and better each game."
Ohio State has split goaltenders on the campaign and will continue to do so, and the two have eerily similar stat lines. Senior Brady Hjelle is in his second year in the program after starting at Minnesota Duluth. After giving up six goals in his return to UMD in the season opener, Hjelle allowed one tally in his next two starts including a shutout at BG.
Meanwhile, true freshman Collin Olson has entered from the U.S. National Team Development Program and also made three starts, giving up seven goals.
Both goalies are 1-1-1 with goals-against averages of 2.27. Hjelle's save percentage is .927 and Olson's is .926.
Improving on the team's early play and finding consistency will be what the Buckeyes are looking for when they take the ice against the Nanooks, but for the most part, they're just happy to be home for the first time all season.
"It was weird because we were on the road for three weeks and we haven't had a home game yet, then you come back and you have a bye week," Johnson said. "It's like, ‘Come on, we want to play at home.' But I guess it was good for us. We had some banged up bodies, but we got everyone healthy and we're ready to go so I think it was good for us.
"We had a great, high-tempo week of practice. I don't think we really skipped a beat at all. I think we looked great and we've been sharp all week."