Buckeyes Facing Challenge Of No. 1

The Ohio State men's hockey team would have a better holiday break if it can finish the first half of the season on a high note. To do so, OSU only has to beat the top team in the country and its fiercest rival. Miami (Ohio) comes calling this weekend as No. 1 in the country and atop the CCHA while OSU tries to find its stride.

Ohio State wants to get to the top of the mountain in NCAA hockey.

At the moment, Miami is already there.

The RedHawks and Buckeyes will meet this weekend for a two-game set, first tonight at 7 in Value City Arena before a return engagement tomorrow night in Oxford. While Ohio State enters at 7-10-1 overall and seventh place in the CCHA thanks to uneven play and a brutal schedule, Miami is ranked No. 1 in the country thanks to its 11-2-5 record and first-place standing in the league.

"They have good hockey players," OSU head coach John Markell said. "They have a good blend of specialty teams. They have good goaltending, their defensemen are fast and mobile, and they can put the puck in the net. They're a physical hockey team. They're exactly what you try to combine to be a hockey team."

And perhaps even scarier, they're on a bit of a roll. The RedHawks blanked Notre Dame twice a weekend ago, getting shutouts from goaltenders in sophomores Cody Reichard and Connor Knapp, the brother of OSU women's icer Chelsea.

With that in mind, the RedHawks will try to extend their 10-2-3 run in what is one of the fiercest rivalries in the league. The teams play at least four games per season and often more, leading to rising tensions when the two get together.

"I like to say we know the team very well," Buckeye forward Sergio Somma said. "They're a very highly skilled team and they use their offense well. They also get pucks to the net and go to the net hard. I feel like we know what we're up against."

On top of that, Miami – which lost last season's national championship game in overtime to Boston University – boasts an intimidating atmosphere in Steve Cady Arena in Oxford, a building in which Ohio State hadn't won before its last trip in February.

"They have a good, hard atmosphere in Oxford and they have the Ohio State name facing them, the intrastate rivalry," Markell said. "(Hockey) is the No. 1 team that Miami University has right now. They want to beat anybody, but they especially want to beat Ohio State.

Seven RedHawks already have more than 10 points, led by junior forward Andy Miele with 16 points. Classmate Carter Camper has eight goals to lead the team, with noted Buckeye killer Jarod Palmer posting a 5-9-14 line to place third on the team in scoring. Reichard has been simply outstanding, going 9-1-2 with a 1.46 goals-against average – which leads the nation – and .934 save percentage

Then there's Ohio State, which has struggled putting pucks in the net – the Buckeyes are 46th of 58 Division I teams in scoring at 2.4 goals per game thanks in part to a power play that is 56th in the country – and killing penalties. Ohio State's PK percentage of 73.2 is 55th, and Michigan beat the Buckeyes 2-1 on Saturday night thanks to a pair of power-play goals even though Ohio State was right in the game in 5-on-5 play.

Markell was less than pleased with the second man-up goal, which came on a 5-on-3 after top defensemen Matt Bartkowski and Corey Toy took consecutive penalties for administering blows to the head of Michigan players.

Mental lapses such as those penalties have been the bane of the coach's existence this year, as the team has been unable for large swaths of the year to put together 60 minutes of consistently good play.

"It's their name on the roster," Markell said. "Go out there and prove the way you really can play. It's not somebody else out there; it's them. It's not somebody else taking a bad penalty, it's not somebody else bailing out of blocking a shot, it's not somebody else that has the puck in front of the net and they have to take a killing in order to get it to the net. It's you. And you have to remind people and remind your fellow competitors and coaches and everybody the way you can be.

"I can't wait for that to happen. There have been some inconsistencies in our game as a team, but especially in the players."

Though the Buckeyes sit in seventh in the 12-team CCHA, the sluggish start still can be fixed. Ohio State is only four points behind fourth-place Alaska, which is a less than two-game gap considering a win in the league is worth three points in the standings.

"We're certainly not where we want to be," Markell said. "Our goal is to be in the top four, and we're not there right now but we have an opportunity to get there. Our job is to play hard and take it a game at a time right now against the competition that we're playing and have a positive weekend this weekend and come back refreshed and ready to go and try to make a little run at it in the second half."

Markell said goaltender Cal Heeter, who has started three games in a row, will play tonight against the RedHawks, and the team might see the return of junior Shane Sims – perhaps its top-performing defenseman this year – in the series.

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