"That's not a mystery," OSU head coach John Markell said. "That's reality."
And for a good percentage of the 2007-08 season, that means Ohio State has been unable to go very far.
Sophomore Joseph Palmer and freshman Dustin Carlson, who have alternated the starting spot at times this year, didn't do much through the opening four months of the season to lift a young, learning Buckeye team our of a prolonged slump.
Both in November and January, Markell alternated his goaltenders, giving them each a chance to put the team on their back and run with the job. That did not go so well.
"You always want in that competition one of them to say, ‘You're going to give me the opportunity to start and I'm not going to hand this back to you,'" Markell said. "I felt like when I was alternating that's what they were doing: they kept handing it back to me."
But just when the Buckeyes have needed it most, a clear frontrunner has emerged in Palmer. The Yorkville, N.Y., native and former member of the United States National Team Development Program has started the Buckeyes' last seven games, going 3-2-2 in that span and showing signs of fulfilling the immense talent that had him one of the best goaltenders in his age group in the nation in junior hockey.
He particularly stepped it up last weekend against No. 9 Notre Dame, backstopping the Buckeyes to their first three-point weekend of the year as OSU posted a win and tie against the Fighting Irish. Palmer stopped 58 of 61 shots by ND over the two games, earning Central Collegiate Hockey Association goaltender of the week honors.
"I thought the weekend went really well," Palmer said. "I think as a team we made a lot of steps in the right direction. We didn't give them too many chances, especially Friday night. Only 23 shots from a team like that is definitely doing something right. Saturday was just one of those games. You get in a rhythm and you keep going."
But next up looms an even bigger challenge: two showdowns with No. 5 Miami (Ohio), a school many would say is Ohio State's biggest rival in the sport. The RedHawks visit Value City Arena tonight at 7 p.m. for OSU's final home game of the year before the two teams conclude their regular seasons Friday night in a return trip to Oxford.
If the Buckeyes (11-21-4, 7-16-3 CCHA) are going to continue to be on a roll going into the CCHA playoffs, which start March 7, Palmer will need to stand tall against the RedHawks, who are fighting with Michigan for a league championship.
"We're playing with a lot of confidence," Palmer said. "At the beginning of the year we'd give up a goal and it seems like we kind of collapsed on ourselves. I think right now we're just playing like we've got nothing to lose."
Palmer flew out of the gates, earning BSB Varsity Club Icer of the Month honors during October. Even though he was 2-4 in the month, he backstopped the Buckeyes to a championship in the season-opening Lefty McFadden Invitational and then kept OSU close during a two-game trip to perennial power Minnesota.
But as OSU sputtered into an 0-10-1 stretch, Palmer struggled. He was lifted after allowing three goals to Ferris State Nov. 2 for Nick Filion, and after another poor showing Nov. 8 against Nebraska-Omaha, Carlson came in to finish out that game and start the next, another 5-2 loss to UNO.
Then Palmer went to the World Junior Championships from Dec. 26-Jan. 5, leaving Carlson as OSU's No. 1 goaltender. The freshman from Minnesota played well but not outstandingly, leaving the job open when Palmer returned. The two alternated until Palmer was in net for a 4-2 win over Bowling Green Feb. 2. On OSU's next road trip, a Feb. 8-9 swing to Omaha, Carlson was left behind for violating team rules and Palmer has been the No. 1 since then, compiling that 3-2-2 record that is 2-0-1 in the last three games.
"I couldn't be more proud of Joe," captain Matt McIlvane said. "Him and Dusty were battling for a little bit and Joe took the competition to heart and stepped up, and he's playing phenomenal."
Seniors End VCA Career
Though their Senior Night was celebrated Feb. 16 with a last-second win against Northern Michigan, OSU seniors McIlvane, Tom Fritsche, Tommy Goebel, Kyle Hood, John Dingle, Johann Kroll, Jason DeSantis and Phil Lauderdale will play their final games in Scarlet and Gray in Value City Arena against the RedHawks.
That OSU senior class entered school for a freshman year in which OSU went 27-11-4, reached the CCHA final against Michigan and played in the NCAA tournament, losing to Cornell in the first round. They are completing their third straight losing season since that year, but they hope to close out their VCA careers with one more special memory.
"It's emotional for sure," McIlvane said. "This is going to be the last time I'm probably ever going to play a hockey game in this building, the place where I've played for four years. It's obviously very emotional. But we have a big opponent coming in, a big rival of ours."
It is fitting that OSU will end the year in its home against Miami. The rivalry between the two teams has become more and more spirited over the years and produced some excellent hockey. The current Ohio State class is just 5-8-4 against the RedHawks – and 0-3 this year – but the Buckeyes certainly will have some emotion coming out tonight with a chance to end Miami's chances at a regular-season title.
However, tempering that emotion might be the biggest key going into the game.
"You just have to worry about your game plan," McIlvane said. "Stick to your game plan, know what you individually have to do to play well and know what the team needs to do to play well."