In eighth place in the CCHA at 4-5-1-1 (6-9-1 overall), Ohio State needs a few wins to make up ground in the league standings – especially when it comes to making up the four points that currently separate the Buckeyes from fourth-place Notre Dame. Once the Christmas break hits, OSU will have played half of the 28-game CCHA schedule.
"I think we know," senior Mathieu Picard said. "I think we know as a team that we do have to win a couple of games here. Before Christmas break, it's big. It's a hard fight to get back up. That's why we're going to show up and play some good games."
Head coach John Markell admitted the Buckeyes have a ways to go to be the team he wants, but he's starting to see signs of improvement. After his team started the year ranked 17th in the nation, Markell has pinned much of the team's slow start on his team's inconsistent competitive level.
But after watching the Buckeyes beat then-No. 6 Bemidji State, 2-1, in overtime last Saturday after competing closely with No. 4 North Dakota before taking a 4-1 loss, Markell saw positives that maybe hadn't been there in the past.
"I like the effort, I like the change within some of our players, and I like the fact that we bounced back," he said. "I think they're engaging more. They're not just hitting shoulder-to-shoulder. They're not excuse-me hitting. I think our forecheck is better. We're realizing what our release points are. Our backcheck is better. We're blocking shots when need be. We're executing better."
Getting a change out of some players could result in big things given how disappointing some have been when it comes to the score sheet. Though the Buckeyes boast one of the top lines in college hockey currently in co-captains Zac Dalpe (9-8-17 in 15 games), Peter Boyd (4-9-13, 16) and Sergio Somma (5-6-11, 16), scoring punch has been lacking from the rest of the lineup.
Injuries to talented junior forwards Hunter Bishop and Kyle Reed haven't helped, as the two have combined for seven points in 17 games. Another junior, John Albert, has 11 points, but no other forward has topped five for the year. The defense hasn't been able to contribute to the rush much, and the one that did – junior Shane Sims had seven points in 12 games – will be missing going forward with an injury.
So it helped when the Buckeyes started showing signs of improvement against Bemidji State, with Reed getting the game winner and the other goal coming from Ian Boots, his first of the year after nine a season ago.
"(Bemidji State) had their checking line on Dalpe's line," Markell said. "The secondary scoring comes through and all of a sudden you win the hockey game. You need that. You need two lines scoring goals in college hockey. You really do."
Defensively, the Buckeyes' major struggle has been on the penalty kill, which gave up 13 goals in 35 chances (31.7 percent) during the first six games of November. Last weekend, against two top-six teams, OSU killed 7 of 8 penalties.
Michigan comes into Value City Arena showing signs of coming out of a season-long scoring slump that allowed the normally vaunted Wolverines to drop five games in a row at one point. Michigan enters the game unranked at 7-7-0, including 3-5-0-0 in the CCHA to sit in 11th place, but polished off Minnesota and Wisconsin last weekend in the College Hockey Showcase by scores of 6-0 and 3-2, respectively.
"As soon as those helmets come on the ice, we know it," Markell said of Michigan, which started the year ranked third in the country. "They're back to scoring goals. We're going to have to play a very, very good game in order to get it done. We expect to put a game out there that they're going to have to play to the top of their game in order to beat us."
And for those wondering if the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry translates to the ice, it does – the teams came to blows after a series three seasons ago, and emotions have been known to run high.
"It's intense," Picard said. "Every shift is almost like playoff hockey, it seems like. It's just a higher level."
Speaking of higher levels, the Buckeyes will have to play at one during the next two weeks against their biggest rivals in order to go into the holiday season feeling good about their chances at a first-round CCHA playoff bye.
"We have to just keep taking the positives out of what we're doing," Reed said. "We have four games left, so we have to try to get as many points as we can."