Icers Primed For Breakout Season

The 2009-10 season, on paper, looks like it could be a big one for the Ohio State men's hockey team. The Buckeyes return most of a squad that made the NCAA tournament a year ago, but will everything fall into place? BuckeyeSports.com takes a look with this year's season preview before Thursday night's season opener in Value City Arena.

Returning 20 letter winners and 14 of its top 15 scorers from a team that made the NCAA tournament, the Ohio State men's hockey program is expected to do big things in 2009-10.

That plan did not include a loss in the team's exhibition game to Western Ontario.

But that's what happened when the 17th-ranked Buckeyes stepped into the OSU Ice Rink surface Sunday and fell 3-2 in overtime to the visiting Mustangs. It was as inauspicious start as possible for a squad led by 15th-year head man John Markell, who had never lost to a Canadian foe in exhibition play.

Markell said the Buckeyes – who per NCAA rules had staged an official practice as a team only once before facing UWO – were reminded about the necessary focus and toughness needed to play once captains' practices come to an end.

The Mustangs were hitting and backchecking for real, something Ohio State had trouble dealing with – the Buckeyes took 12 penalties, many retaliatory, and tried to be a bit fancy instead of putting pucks on net when the chips were down.

"The game feels like a loss, and it is a loss whether it's exhibition or not," Markell said.

Ohio State will try to put those lessons in practice tomorrow night during the season opener at Value City Arena, a 7 p.m. start against visiting Quinnipiac. The Buckeyes and Bobcats play game two of the series Friday night at 7 in VCA. For the first time, student admission is free for all games this season.

Those games will be the last since the Buckeyes played in the NCAA tournament and were handed an 8-3 first-round loss at the hands of eventual national champion Boston University. That was a game that told OSU – which massively improved last year to finish with a 23-15-4 record and fifth-place CCHA standing – it still had some steps to take to arrive on the national stage yet again.

"It was definitely a wakeup call," junior forward Sergio Somma said. "At that time of the year, every team is good. Every team can beat anybody, and it's just a level up. They were big guys but they could also skate, and their strength in battles was definitely apparent, and that's something that everybody has been working really hard on in the weight room."

Ohio State hopes that work will pay off just as last summer's offseason helped a young Buckeye team make an 11-game leap in the win column. Included in last year's improvements were a 13-game unbeaten streak – best since 1983-84 – and February wins against top CCHA teams Miami (the national runner-up), Michigan and Notre Dame, all of whom begin the year in the top five in the country.

The Buckeyes, meanwhile, are expected to finish fourth behind the Wolverines, Fighting Irish and RedHawks in the league standings according to both the coaches and the media.

"I don't think people realize how good we are," sophomore Zac Dalpe said. "That's a good test for us, to start proving people wrong like we did last year."

Just one senior is on the roster, which includes 12 juniors along with eight sophomores and six freshmen. Because of that, leadership will have to come from a group that includes players like Somma, who earned an alternate captainship near the end of last year, and Peter Boyd, who served as a captain, along with players like Dalpe, John Albert and Matt Bartkowski.

The only question, it seems, is if everything will come together, especially after the opening game. That will cease being a major concern if the Buckeyes play well against Quinnipiac.

"(The exhibition game) was a good experience to get the summer hockey out of us, get in a real game situation," goaltender Dustin Carlson said. "It's good to get back out there and have the excitement of the crowd."

A quick position-by-position preview of the Ohio State team follows.

Forward
The Buckeyes should be loaded with offensive talent – they were second in the league in scoring at 3.40 goals per game last year – even after the loss of their leading scorer in Corey Elkins, who graduated after an 18-goal, 41-point season and quickly signed with the Los Angeles Kings organization.

Depth should pick up the slack considering OSU returns the next 14 top scorers on the team, all of whom had more than 10 points on the year.

"We have a ton of speed and a ton of skill," Somma said. "I feel like we're going to be a good skating team. We'll definitely be fast up front."

The Buckeyes will be led by Albert, an Atlanta Thrashers draft pick who narrowly missed the All-CCHA preseason first team. Last year, the suburban Clevelander finished with a team-best 28 assists to go with 39 points.

Then there's sniper Zac Dalpe, a second-round draft pick who potted 13 goals and added 12 assists last year. In the offseason, he added 15 pounds and seems more comfortable with his surroundings than a season ago.

"I put on 15 pounds, and all my (weightlifting) numbers have gone up," he said. "I think your second time around, you always feel more comfortable. It's fun, that's for sure."

Ohio State will miss winger Hunter Bishop – who was plus-24 with a 14-17-31 line last year – early because of an ankle sprain, but there are plenty of guys who can pick up the slack.

Boyd and Somma will be on the top line with Albert. Boyd reached double digits in goals for the second season with 13 last year, while Somma had an 11-14-25 line. Dalpe should be paired on a line with junior Kyle Reed, a speedster who struggled a bit last year before finishing with eight goals – and hat trick at Miami near the end of the year.

Sophomores Ian Boots and Taylor Stefishen have talent, while senior Mathieu Picard and junior C.J. Severyn are both solid two-way players. Patrick Schafer and Cory Schneider are grinders, while OSU adds freshmen Alex Carlson, Jeff McNeil and Paul Kirtland into the equation.

Ohio State will hope to improve on the Western Ontario game in which style outweighed substance – to the team's detriment.

"You're in a tight game – are we going to shoot the puck from the other side and drive the middle? No, we didn't do that," Markell said. "We weren't prepared to do that. We wanted to play a little bit different game where if we had the opportunity to play a few more games or a few more practices, we could call on that to do that. You have to do what we call grease it out, get a good tough goal, and I thought we weren't prepared to do that."

Defense
Ohio State returns seven contributing defensemen from a team that finished just eighth in the league at 2.83 goals allowed per game, but an extra year of experience should do the Buckeyes good.

The blue line is led by sophomore Bartkowski, an imposing defender who works well in both zones. Last year he was plus-12 while finishing with five goals and 15 points.

Junior Shane Sims has lived up to his billing as a standout two-way defenseman, posting a team-best five power-play goals to go along with seven overall tallies, 17 assists and a plus-13 rating.

The Buckeyes' best stay-at-home defenseman is Corey Toy, who went plus-13 last year while paired mostly with Bartkowski on OSU's No. 1 pairing. The resourceful Chris Reed can play on the power play and kill penalties, and the dependable junior had two goals and 11 assists last year.

The fifth regular back is Sean Duddy, who had carved out a role on the blue line as a freshman last year only to see his year end with a broken leg in late January.

Junior Erick Belanger and sophomore Michael Folkes are both big bodies who played part-time a year ago. Two freshmen have been added to the defensive corps in Devon Krogh and Brandon Martell.

Goaltending
Last year, goaltender Dustin Carlson was the surprise key to Ohio State's resurgence, taking over as the starter for Joseph Palmer early in the year and providing the calming influence that allowed the rest of the team to reach a comfort level.

Now he's in the No. 1 role after going 21-12-3 with a 2.50 goals-against average and .917 save percentage last year. Carlson posted four shutouts and started every game of the second half for OSU, and he hopes to not stop there.

"I got better over the summer," he said. "I'm just much more confident and now, you know, it's kind of like I know where I'm at coming into this year."

He'll be pushed by talented sophomore Cal Heeter, who finished 2-1-0 with a 3.29 GAA and .898 save percentage last year.

The third goaltender will be freshman Jeff Michael.


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