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Headline: Shooting Stars
Ohio State has not won the Central Collegiate Hockey Association's regular season championship since 1972.
However, with several talented players back from last year's 27-11-4 team that qualified for the NCAA Tournament, this could be the year the Buckeyes get over the hump.
Ohio State must replace captain/forward J.B. Bittner. He was the emotional leader on last year's team and finished with 10 goals and 14 assists. But other than Bittner, everyone returns to the fold, including one of the top coaches in the country, John Markell.
It was somewhat of a nerve-racking offseason for Markell because a few of his OSU players had the option of turning professional.
Senior defenseman Nate Guenin was a fourth round selection by the New York Rangers in 2002. He had always intended on playing four years of college hockey, but in July, the Rangers offered him a big contract and he strongly considered accepting it.
Also this summer, OSU sophomore forward Tom Fritsche was selected in the second round of the National Hockey League draft by the Colorado Avalanche (Fritsche's brother, Dan, who did not play college hockey, was a second-round pick by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2003). However, Fritsche decided to come back to OSU for at least another year before beginning his pro career.
There was also the chance that the Buckeyes could lose senior forward Rod Pelley and senior goalie Dave Caruso. If the NHL's lockout hadn't been resolved, there were strong rumors that Pelley and Caruso would be offered contracts as replacement players. However, the NHL owners and players agreed on a new collective bargaining agreement in June. Therefore, all the Buckeyes will be back in 2005-06.
"Well, I'm obviously happy that we've retained a lot of our players," Markell said. "We weren't sure it was going to happen with the collective bargaining agreement. A lot of our guys had good summers from what I hear and guys like Nate Guenin are coming back. Tom Fritsche, who was drafted, is coming back. And that's always great because you want to continue on with what you had last year. Everybody thought the strength of this year's team would be that we didn't lose a lot of players. So, we're excited about the returning team and the experience we have, and we'll see where we can get with these guys."
The 6-2, 200-pound Guenin brings a physical presence to OSU's back line. In 2004-05, he had a plus/minus rating of plus-5 and also scored two goals to go along with 12 assists.
The Rangers offering him a big contract this off-season tells you everything you need to know about his skills.
"I don't know exactly what money they offered, but he said money was third down on his list," Markell said. "Nate had some unfinished business here at Ohio State. I'm sure a degree is important to him. He sees the guys coming back who are trying to finish their degrees that had pretty good college careers. They all tried the pro game and they're all coming back to get their degrees. So, I think he understands that it's a lot easier to do it while you're here.
"And the main goal is trying to pursue your dreams. I think he sees that we have a good team. He didn't have the opportunity to play on a championship team and I think he wants to put a ring on his own finger and is excited about that."
Guenin will serve as one of the Buckeyes' captains this season.
The 5-11, 185-pound Fritsche is one of the top two-way players in college hockey. He burst upon the scene last year as a freshman and led OSU with 45 points (11 goals, 34 assists) and a plus-21 rating. This year, even more is expected.
"Well, I think (the Avalanche) got a heck of a hockey player," Markell said. "People were wondering if he was big enough or not. He knew he could draw some penalties by playing the way he plays for us, but in the end, I thought it might hurt him a little as far as his draft status. But, he was doing what was best for the team at the time and you have to respect that.
"Then he ended up getting drafted in the second round, which is phenomenal. It's well-deserving. Now he has the opportunity to get bigger and stronger, and I think that's what the Avalanche see. He's going to continue to grow here, and I think they are looking forward to him – whether it's going to be three or four years that he stays in college – they think he's going to follow the many players that have had a successful college career followed by a successful pro career."
Ohio State's other captain this year is the 6-0, 205-pound Pelley. Last season, he was second on the team in goals (22) and points (41).
Pelley – a tough guy who has the hardest slapshot on the team – is a former partial-scholarship player who worked his way into being one of the top performers in the CCHA.
"He's a full scholarship kid now, but he's one of those kids that paid on their own the first year," Markell said. "That's not uncommon and you have to respect the fact that they do that. Rod used to have to go home during the summer and earn money. Now that he's on full scholarship, he's able to stay here the summer, and really the team and the program reaps the benefits of that because he's in much better shape and gets himself ready to go.
"He's got to build on what he got going last year. He had a complete year last year, but like any senior, he wants to finish up the right way and leave his own legacy here as far as championships."
The 6-1, 212-pound Caruso is entering his second full season as the Buckeyes' netminder. Last year, he was 25-9-4 with two shutouts. He had a goals-against average of 2.14 and a save percentage of .917.
Caruso is expected to be one of the best goalies in America this season.
"I think he's got to continue to build off what he has accomplished here," Markell said. "He came on towards the end of his sophomore season (2003-04) and really carried that into last year and was solid all season. He's not happy with the way we ended the year, and that whole senior class wants to win. They want to leave something behind, however they have to get it done.
"Dave is a good teammate and he's a good leader to our young goalies. I'm looking forward to seeing his consistency stay there, and that's what he showed last year was that there was the consistency, and that's what you need in the net. You need a high level of consistency. He's one of our best athletes, he's a good student and I fully expect him to graduate within four years and having a great final year here."
Other top returnees for the Buckeyes include: senior forward Dan Knapp (12 goals, 23 assists last year), junior forward Matt Beaudoin (team-best 23 goals last year, in addition to 11 assists), sophomore forward Domenic Maiani (12 goals, 22 assists) and junior defenseman Sean Collins (9 goals, 17 assists).
Markell is entering his 11th season OSU's head coach and says this is his most experienced team.
"Yeah, I would say getting as far as we did and retaining some of the guys, I would have to say, yeah, it's probably our most experienced group," he said. "Although, you could still consider it a young team because there's only four seniors."
Looking at the CCHA race, Ohio State is among the preseason favorites. But the Buckeyes will face stiff competition from several familiar teams.
"I never count out Michigan," Markell said. "I think also Nebraska (Omaha) and Alaska (Fairbanks) have improved. There are a number of teams that have improved. People think they have lost a lot, but I think Michigan is going to be right there. I think Michigan State has improved; I think Miami has improved; I think Nebraska-Omaha has improved and people better watch out for Alaska.
"There's a number of teams that are trying to change their make-up, like a team like Western Michigan. And who knows if they add more grit whether they will be better or not, but I think the parity that you see in our league makes everybody dangerous. But there's always going to be teams that are going to up there like Michigan, Michigan State. Omaha is another team that should be up there this year. Northern Michigan is always contending. So, the usual suspects, plus more."
Of note, Michigan lost nine seniors off last year's team. And over the summer, the Wolverines lost three more players to the NHL, including two captains.
Looking at OSU's schedule, the Bucks must face Michigan, Northern Michigan and Alaska-Fairbanks all on the road.
"Our schedule is tough at first," Markell said. "We always backload our home schedule to the second part of the season to get away from football. We drew pretty good crowds last year. Whether that was because of the (NHL) lockout, that certainly helped. But we want to retain those people and hopefully they will come to the first few games that we do have at home.
"We're right on the road playing Colorado College, which we've had circled for a long time. We know how good they are and how important that is in the long stretch. We have to do it, not only for ourselves, but for our league. If we can knock them off once, that's really important, especially an away game like that. Then we go to Alaska, which is always a tough trip. But we certainly have an opportunity to win a few games and we're looking forward to it. We want to win our own tournament. The home games that we do have, we're going to have to take care of and pick a few points off on the road."
OSU will also host the four-team Ohio Hockey Classic at Nationwide Arena in December and will participate in the unique Frozen Tundra Hockey Classic, an outdoor game against Wisconsin at fabled Lambeau Field in Green Bay in February.
Goals and expectations have never been higher at OSU. Markell is in the process of building a powerhouse program.
"Well, I think we have the type of team that can contend for the championship," he said. "You want to be in the top four of your conference, but seeing where we ended up last year, we have expectations within our program to stay in the top three for sure, not just top four. I think we have the ability to contend for a championship here. Obviously, staying healthy is important and taking care of business non-conference is also important. Last year, we lost a few games early, then all of a sudden we win 26 hockey games and we don't even know if we're in the NCAA Championships.
"So, we have our priorities straight. We want to finish in first place in the league regularly, try and win the championship and then qualify for the NCAA and try and win a national championship. But our league is very, very important to us right now and that's what we're shooting for.
"We've got a nice team. We've got a little bit of a bull's-eye on our backs, but we're used to that. We played with that most of last year too. So, I'm looking forward to seeing how this team evolves because last year was last year. This year is this year and we're excited about it."
With the Blue Jackets in town and with OSU establishing itself as one of the top college programs, Columbus has somewhat turned into a hockey town. Football will always come first, but there is definitely a place for hockey in the Capital City.
"Well, I think we've got a few things to do to complete that before we can really call it a hockey town," Markell said. "It's a natural progression from minor hockey up through junior, which we recruit from. Hopefully there will be a junior program in this city because the kids have to understand where they need to go to first before they get to me. The kids we have certainly understand that they have to excel in college hockey before they make it to the National Hockey League. We're missing a step here right now in Columbus, Ohio, and hopefully someday we'll have that franchise. We do have a junior B team, but junior A's is what you need and hopefully that will evolve here in the very near future and the kids can see the progression they've got to take and they can stay in town and play their minor hockey, their junior hockey and their college hockey in town, and maybe even their professional hockey.
"Right now, we have the junior B Jackets in town. But it's not a league that we would recruit out of. Kids come out of there to play junior A and then move on and play college. But it's more of a high-end older midget league and we need a good junior A team here. That would be nice to have. Obviously it would be competition for us, but I think we could all survive and give everybody what they need here. Columbus, Ohio, is a big enough city to maintain three good hockey programs."
2005-06 Men's Ice Hockey Schedule
Day Date Opponent Location Time
Fri. Oct. 14 Colorado College Colorado Springs, CO 7:35 p.m.
Sat. Oct. 15 Colorado College Colorado Springs, CO 7:05 p.m.
Thu. Oct. 20 Bowling Green Bowling Green, OH 7:05 p.m.
Fri. Oct. 21 Bowling Green Columbus, OH 7:05 p.m.
Fri. Oct. 28 Western Michigan Kalamazoo, MI 7:35 p.m.
Sat. Oct. 29 Western Michigan Kalamazoo, MI 7:35 p.m.
Fri. Nov. 4 Miami (Ohio) Oxford, OH 7:35 p.m.
Sat. Nov. 5 Miami (Ohio) Columbus, OH 7:05 p.m.
Tue. Nov. 15 Michigan State Columbus, OH 7:05 p.m.
Fri. Nov. 18 Lake Superior Columbus, OH 7:05 p.m.
Sat. Nov. 19 Lake Superior Columbus, OH 7:05 p.m.
Fri. Nov. 25 Notre Dame South Bend, IN 7:35 p.m.
Sat. Nov. 26 Notre Dame South Bend, IN 7:05 p.m.
Fri. Dec. 2 Alabama-Huntsville Columbus, OH 7:05 p.m.
Sat. Dec. 3 Alabama-Huntsville Columbus, OH 7:05 p.m.
Sat. Dec. 10 Union Columbus, OH 7:05 p.m.
Sun. Dec. 11 Union Columbus, OH 3:05 p.m.
Thu. Dec. 29 Holy Cross* Columbus, OH 8:05 p.m.
Fri. Dec. 30 Miami or Rensselaer* Columbus, OH TBA
Fri. Jan. 6 Bowling Green Columbus, OH 7:05 p.m.
Sat. Jan. 7 Bowling Green Bowling Green, OH 7:05 p.m.
Tue. Jan. 10 Miami (Ohio) Columbus, OH 7:05 p.m.
Fri. Jan. 13 Nebraska-Omaha Columbus, OH 7:05 p.m.
Sat. Jan. 14 Nebraska-Omaha Columbus, OH 7:05 p.m.
Fri. Jan. 20 Alaska-Fairbanks Fairbanks, AK 7:05 p.m.
Sat. Jan. 21 Alaska-Fairbanks Fairbanks, AK 7:05 p.m.
Fri. Jan. 27 Notre Dame Columbus, OH 7:05 p.m.
Sat. Jan. 28 Notre Dame Columbus, OH 7:05 p.m.
Fri. Feb. 3 Michigan Ann Arbor, MI 7:35 p.m.
Sat. Feb. 4 Michigan Ann Arbor, MI 7:35 p.m.
Thu. Feb. 9 Michigan State Columbus, OH 7:05 p.m.
Sat. Feb. 11 Wisconsin@ Green Bay, WI 3:00 p.m.
Tue. Feb. 14 Miami (Ohio) Oxford, OH 7:35 p.m.
Fri. Feb. 17 Ferris State Columbus, OH 7:05 p.m.
Sat. Feb. 18 Ferris State Columbus, OH TBA
Fri. Feb. 24 Northern Michigan Marquette, MI 7:35 p.m.
Sat. Feb. 25 Northern Michigan Marquette, MI 7:35 p.m.
March 3-5 CCHA First-Round (best-of-three at campus sites) TBA
March 10-12 CCHA Quarterfinals (best-of-three at campus sites) TBA
March 17-18 CCHA Championships (semifinals and finals at Detroit)
*-Ohio Hockey Classic at Nationwide Arena
@-Frozen Tundra Hockey Classic at Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wis.