Of course, it makes sense with as much as the Buckeyes have had to battle this year that adversity has hit yet again just when crunch time is in the offing. Heading into a two-game series tonight and tomorrow against Bowling Green at Value City Arena, Ohio State (8-18-2, 4-13-1) could be without one of its most important players.
Freshman Patrick Schafer suffered a wrist injury during last weekend's split series against Lake Superior State in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. The injury came in OSU's first game of the series, a win, and kept him out of the second game. Head coach John Markell said that though the injury isn't as serious as originally expected, it could keep the Hilliard, Ohio, native out for this weekend's Ohio Cup clashes.
"We're going to see from the doctors if we can get him in this weekend or the next weekend," Markell said. "Obviously it's a big loss because he was one of our young freshman that was playing so well, really taking on a big role for this hockey club."
Though Schafer has scored two only goals and added four assists so far this season, his impact has been felt. The freshman had become one of OSU's top centers, occupying the middle of a line of late with classmates Kyle Reed and Peter Boyd. Schafer's relentless work ethic helped has helped Boyd slide into a tie for second place on the team in points, and Reed's six goals are the second-most for a freshman on the team.
"He's relentless on the puck," Boyd said. "When you're in the corner you can always expect him right behind you if you're the first guy. If you're the second guy you can expect him to leave you the puck there and create chances for our line."
Should Schafer not be able to go against the Falcons (12-12, 9-9), a shuffling of lines will have to occur. For last weekend's series against the Lakers, captain Matt McIlvane, a natural center, was moved to wing to take advantage of his speed. If Schafer is out, the senior will likely have to move back to the middle to provide another steady hand on faceoffs.
Not having Schafer, who has matured into a top penalty killer for the Buckeyes, on the ice proved costly against the Lakers, as well. During the night he missed, a 6-5 loss to LSSU Saturday night, the Lakers scored five power-play goals.
"Patrick had taken on a new role of being a penalty killer, too, which affected us with centermen wining draws," Markell said. "We're not a team that can take a loss like that and live a long time with it, so we need to have him back."
The Buckeyes sit in 10th place in the CCHA going into the series with the Falcons. Their nine points are five behind Northern Michigan for eighth place, the last spot that receives home ice during the first round of the league playoffs. Both teams have 10 games remaining.
Another boost that would help Ohio State could come from between the pipes. After saying he planned to rotate goaltenders Joseph Palmer and Dustin Carlson in the Soo, Markell chose to go with Palmer both nights. The sophomore got the win in the opener but gave up five goals on 16 shots during the first two periods Saturday night, leading to Carlson taking the ice for the third period and overtime.
"Obviously we need to get some consistency back there," Markell said. "Five goals in (16) shots is not going to get it done for us. I wasn't happy with some of the goals that went in against Joe. It can't keep costing us games. I'm not saying he has to be great, just be good."
Neither netminder really hit the mark during the month of January. Carlson received three starts and finished with a 3.57 goals-against average and 87.2 save percentage. Palmer, who missed the first series of the month against Alaska while suiting up for the United States team at the World Junior Championship, had the numbers in his three starts dip to 4.16 and 85.1, respectively.
Markell said he was not sure who would get the opening call against his alma mater.
"I'm going to watch them in practice and determine in practice who's going to compete for that job, but it's certainly up in the air," he said.
Bowling Green comes into the series in sixth place in the CCHA after a disastrous last-place campaign in 2006-07. Senior forward Derek Whitmore's 19 goals are good for fourth in the CCHA, and his 0.83 goals per game slots him in a tie for second in the nation. Scott Paluch's Falcons also have been picked up by a solid freshman class led by forwards Jacob Cepis (10-10-20), David Solway (eight goals) and Dan Sexton (six goals).
In net, the Falcons have split playing time between junior Jimmy Spratt and freshman Nick Eno. The latter is 8-4 with a 2.58 GAA and 90.1 save percentage.