"Pretty big series, huh?" Markell bellowed as he prepared to discuss the two-game set tonight and tomorrow night in Value City Arena.
That it is. Not only are the Buckeyes (18-10-4, 11-9-4-3) are fighting for their playoff lives – Ohio State enters placed fifth in the CCHA, one point below fourth-place Alaska for the last first-round league playoff bye, and on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble – but the visitors will be donning Maize and Blue.
Michigan (23-9-0, 17-7-0-0 CCHA) comes to town, and really, that's enough on its own to put these games on the marquee even if the Maize and Blue weren't ranked third in the nation.
"It's the Scarlet and Gray vs. the Maize and Blue," senior defenseman Nick Biondo said. "It's a big deal to everybody around here."
Finally, the university expects around 10,000 fans each night for the games, which would be season highs. Tonight's game, which begins at 7:05 p.m., will be shown live nationally on the Big Ten Network, while tomorrow's 8:05 faceoff will be on the CBS College Sports Network.
The fans and television viewers – at least those who will be rooting for the home team – hope to see an Ohio State team that plays better than the one that took just one point from a trip to 11th-place Michigan State last weekend.
With a good weekend at MSU, the Buckeyes could have put some distance between themselves and Alaska. Instead, they must play catch-up, a quest aided by the fact Ohio State has two games in hand on the Nanooks.
To get the necessary points, the Buckeyes know they have to bring a much better game than they did in East Lansing.
"If they don't respect this team coming in, they're going to see what happens," Markell said. "Maybe they didn't do that last weekend. Maybe they were looking at the record. But as much as them being naïve has helped us before … I think it can help us out here too that they can forget last weekend pretty quickly. It's our job as coaches to show them why that happened and it's pretty easy to do once you watch the tape."
The Buckeyes have a couple of advantages on Michigan, which swept an Ohio State team still finding its identity by 4-3 and 6-1 scores on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1. First, the Wolverines aren't playing at home, as Michigan uses the loud, intimidating crowd in Yost Ice Arena to try to bury opposing teams early. The Buckeyes found out firsthand during that 6-1 defeat, a loss that in Biondo's words started to unify the team.
Ohio State being at home should give the team the upper hand in both crowd support and controlling the pace of the game. As the home squad, the Buckeyes will have the final change, allowing them set the matchups they want on the ice.
Perhaps that could help the squad set a physical tone early, as the team's take-the-body approach that seemed to wear down No. 2 Notre Dame two weekends ago while taking two points was largely missing at Michigan State.
What's My Line?
Another tweak the coaching staff has made is a change in lines. Markell said that the Buckeyes will make some edits to put players on their natural wings, which should help offensively and defensively.
"Watching some of our guys, they're not having the success because they're playing on their off wing," Markell said. "What I want to do is try to get the guys back on their natural wings and get stuff on net, stuff on net, stuff on net, instead of the cutbacks where you get it poked away from you, you get middle lane penetration and then all of a sudden the puck is going the other way.
"We want to eliminate transition on these guys are much as possible. They're like any team, you can dump the puck in and get jumping on your forecheck – which we weren't doing last week – and then they have trouble. We'll have trouble if they do that. NHL teams have trouble when you do that.
"It's who's going to stick to the plan longer. They want the transition game. That's why we're going with guys on their natural side so they're facing the net and they can get shots on net and buy into that and grease out some goals."
During last weekend's second game against Michigan State, the Buckeyes had righthanders Taylor Stefishen and Hunter Bishop on the left wing and lefties Peter Boyd and Zach Pelletier on the right side.
Bishop, a highly skilled offensive player with 12 goals on the year including the game-tying tally in the series opener, didn't have a shot on net in that second game. Neither did forwards Ian Boots, C.J. Severyn and Corey Elkins, a fact that irked Markell to no end.
Dalps The Swizzle Stick
With the Buckeyes looking to bounce back from scoring just two goals at Michigan State last weekend, some of the onus turns over to freshman Zac Dalpe, who one might say is the straw the stirs the drink for the squad.
Dalpe's return from injury helped the Buckeyes score seven goals two weekends ago against the second-ranked Fighting Irish, which entered Value City Arena with the Central Collegiate Hockey Association's best defense. In the previous four games, which Dalpe missed with a knee malady, the Buckeyes had been kept to two goals or below in three of them.
But when asked if he felt like he is a trigger for the team's resurgent offense, Dalpe deflected any praise.
"I don't really think about it, to be honest with you," he said. "I just go out and play my game and bring what I can to the team. If what I can do is bring a spark sometimes on the bench and keep the life up, then I'm happy."
The 19-year-old has done his fair share for the squad this year. The second-round draft NHL pick by Carolina leads the squad with 13 goals and is tied for the team lead with three game-winning tallies.
"He brings energy, he brings passion and of course he has got a lot of skill," Markell said. "He brings energy to our bench. He loves to play the game of hockey, and there's no doubt who he's playing for. He's playing for the Ohio State Buckeyes because he's out there in all situations. He's not just in goal-scoring situations. That can be infectious."
Seniors Look Forward To Series
Time is running out in the Ohio State careers of seniors Biondo, Elkins and Pelletier, but at least the trio knows that they have home games against the team's two chief rivals to close out the campaign. The Buckeyes play a home-and-home next weekend with No. 5 Miami.
"Talking with my friends that have graduated, the games that they remember are the big ones against the Michigans, the Miamis," Elkins said. "It's going to make it pretty special. My family is all going to be coming down. We plan on playing a lot of hockey still, but it'll be an exciting couple of weeks."
Biondo agreed, also pointing to the fact that good performances will pave the way for more playoff games at home to be added to the calendar.
"These games mean a lot, especially because of where we are in the standings," Biondo said. "We need the points to get the first round bye. All four of these games are huge for us, especially because if we get hot now, who knows what we can do in the playoffs."