The Buckeyes started the year by playing in the first shootout in Central Collegiate Hockey Association history against No. 8 Miami (Ohio) in their opener, defeating the rival RedHawks 3-1 in the postgame shootout and 4-3 in the game (though it went down as a 3-3 tie for NCAA tournament purposes) to start with two points in the league. The next night, four power-play goals for MU during a return trip to Oxford dealt Ohio State a 7-3 loss.
A setback by the same score greeted Ohio State on its next time out against Lake Superior State in Value City Arena, leaving observers to wonder if this team would travel down a similar path to the one that finished 12-25-4 last year and 11th in the CCHA.
Since then, the Buckeyes have seemingly turned a corner. OSU defeated the Lakers 4-2 the next night and then went on the road to split with No. 2 Denver last weekend, losing the opener 3-1 to the Pioneers and then coming back to post a 4-3 win Saturday night during its last game.
As a result, the team is feeling pretty good about itself having two wins over ranked opponents this year, but the next two games could lead to more peaks and valleys. The Buckeyes travel to No. 8 Michigan for a two-game set Friday and Saturday against their rivals in Yost Ice Arena, one of the toughest places to play in the entire nation.
"The good thing I saw is we came back for Monday practice and we were looking forward to this weekend," sophomore captain Peter Boyd said. "The mind-set is we're happy, but we want more. That's a big thing for this team is not to get complacent with just one win."
Such maturity might not be what is expected out of a young team with just five upperclassmen, but that's what the Buckeyes are getting. Things like resilience and chemistry are developing much more rapidly when they did last year when the large senior and freshman classes never seemed to mesh and Ohio State suffered through an 11-game winless streak and an 0-7 start in league play.
While things have gone each way for Ohio State this year, the wins all have shown toughness from the Buckeyes. In the opener against Miami, OSU never trailed but weathered a storm down the stretch from the more experienced RedHawks. The wins over Lake Superior State and Denver saw the Buckeyes come back from third-period deficits to earn the win.
Against Denver, the Buckeyes did the little things right, such as blocking shots. Sophomore Patrick Schafer took a shot to the leg and might not be able to play against the Wolverines.
"That's important, how we came together," head coach John Markell said. "I thought we did a good job of playing in all three zones. Can we improve? Certainly. But I think they're a close group. Hopefully we can continue team-building, and it's important. It's something we work on because that's what it is, a team game."
"Guys are taking pride in their personal job and the team's goals," Boyd added. "If we stick to that I think we're going to be a dangerous team."
Goal-scoring hasn't been that much of a problem – after just 2.4 goals per game last year, OSU is up to 3.0 this year, and the Buckeyes have scored three or more goals in all but one game.
Then again, they have allowed 4.2 tallies per game, and opposing teams are converting 25.6 percent of their power-play chances. No goaltender on the roster has a goals-against average under 3.00, and a number of players the Buckeyes are counting on to play defensive roles have a negative plus-minus rating.
The defense will have to improve against Michigan (4-2, 1-1 CCHA), which is traditionally one of the most talented programs in the league. Sophomore Aaron Palushaj leads the league and is tied for fourth in the nation with 10 points (5-5), while Carl Hagelin has a 1-7-8 line, Matt Rust has six points and Louie Caporusso has five tallies. All are sophomores.
Then again, Michigan's defense is struggling at the moment and the Wolverines gave up seven goals during their last game, a 7-2 loss to Boston University on Saturday night. Freshman defenseman Brandon Burlon has not been able to play yet because of injury, while returnees Mark Mitera and Steve Kampfer are out indefinitely.
"I just think the mention of the name Michigan demands respect," Markell said. "We have to keep building and concentrating on what makes us successful no matter where we're playing. They're the type of team you have to beat in order to be at the top of the league."
One of the tricks for Ohio State will be to weather the storm of Yost. Michigan is 3-0 in its home building this year, which isn't out of the ordinary, but Ohio State has fared well during its last two trips, splitting each time. A rowdy section of students can be expected for each game, and the nearly 7,000 fans will provide more hostility than the 6,000-plus in Denver both Markell and Boyd said.
Ohio State will have to keep its composure, like it did in both games at Denver but didn't do during the 7-3 loss at Miami.
"I think it's another step up, for sure," Boyd said. "It's definitely a hostile environment. We have to be prepared. I think that Miami game kind of helped us as a team because it showed us what fans can do. Hopefully this week we stay calm and composed and just play our game.
The following are breakdowns of the position groups for the Buckeyes so far in the 2008-09 season.
Through six games, the team leader in both goals and points is senior Corey Elkins, who has four goals and six points. He has a point in five straight games. Elkins has been a part-time player during his Ohio State career, but his talent has never been questioned. At 6-2, he has good reach, a good shot, and solid speed and moves.
He's tied with John Albert, who has six points and is tied for the team lead in assists with four. Albert is also a plus-4 in plus-minus rating.
Two players in Boyd and freshman Zac Dalpe have three goals apiece. Boyd finished with 10 tallies a season ago as a freshman mostly because of his hard work and opportunistic scoring, but this year he's improved his shot. Five of his 13 career goals are game winners. Dalpe is one of the top forwards in the freshman class in the entire nation and is beginning to find his game.
Other players with offensive skill showing include another newcomer in sophomore Hunter Bishop, who started his college career two years ago at North Dakota before going back to the junior ranks. Bishop is tied with Albert with four assists and has a goal.
Kyle Reed and Sergio Somma finished with 10 and eight goals, respectively, last year, and the two are continuing to score at times. Somma, who is tied for the team lead with 25 points, has a 1-3-4 line and Reed has a goal and two helpers.
Eight Buckeye defensemen have played three or more games. Sophomores Shame Sims and Chris Reed and freshman Matt Bartkowski have played in all six games, while sophomore Corey Toy and freshman Sean Duddy have begun to assert themselves. Also in the mix are senior Nick Biondo, sophomore Erick Belanger and freshman Michael Folkes.
Reed leads the defensive group with four points on one goal and three assists, though he is just minus-1. Biondo is actually the only member of the defensive group to have a positive plus-minus at plus-1, but he has not played the last three games.
This position has seen its fair share of flux. Junior Joseph Palmer, the No. 1 goalie in his class when he arrived at Ohio State, started the first three games but was lifted out of two of the first three as the Buckeyes were on the way to giving up seven goals. Sophomore Dustin Carlson started the next one and earned the win, then got the nod in the opener in Denver and played well again. Wanting to freshman Cal Heeter some work, Markell put him in and the freshman earned the win in OSU's last game.
Markell said that Carlson, who has a 3.66 goals-against average, would start in the opener against Michigan, but Heeter has the best stats with a 3.09 GAA and .920 save percentage. Palmer has a 5.40 GAA and .836 save percentage.