The RedHawks clinched the league's two weeks ago with five games of 28 still on the schedule. Miami is 20-2-4-2 in the league for 66 points, 20 clear of second place, and had a 23-game CCHA unbeaten streak before losing last Saturday night to Nebraska-Omaha.
But these Ohio State Buckeyes, who travel to Miami tonight before hosting the RedHawks on Saturday as part of a season-ending series, know their fierce rivals well. OSU led the RedHawks in Steve Cady Arena earlier this year before Miami used a third-period comeback to win, and the Buckeyes won at the end of the season last year in a crucial game in Oxford.
"We know we can play with them when we play our game," junior forward Sergio Somma. "There's no question there. Obviously they're a great team. If we're not ready to go it's not going to be a fun night. We've beat them there before and it's a team that we're very familiar with. There's no surprises when it comes to them."
The problem for OSU is that wins against their rival – just like chinks in the Miami armor – are few and far between. The RedHawks boast a 14-3-4 record in the five seasons in the series, including a two-game sweep earlier this season.
The Buckeyes will need to turn that around if they hope to stay in eighth place in the CCHA and keep the last home-ice spot for the first round of the league playoffs. Ohio State goes into the weekend holding a three-point lead on ninth-place Lake Superior State, who travels to face rival Northern Michigan while likely holding the tiebreaker should they end up tying OSU.
That lead was achieved a weekend ago when Ohio State got a win and a shootout triumph at Western Michigan, the latest sign that the team is playing better hockey. Since the calendar flipped to 2010, the Buckeyes are 5-3-4 overall with a pair of shootout wins in CCHA play.
"I think guys are coming into their element a little bit and guys are realizing that they are important to this team," leading scorer Zac Dalpe said. "It's something that took us a while to get used to and took us a while to figure out, but hopefully we've got it figured out."
The play of Dalpe – as well as linemates Sergio Somma and Peter Boyd – will bear watching. The grouping has not been split up all year by head coach John Markell thanks to their solid play and practice habits.
Dalpe – the second-round draft pick of the Carolina Hurricanes – has earned the most notice, and he'll be chasing the CCHA scoring title this weekend. He enters with 17 goals in league games – two ahead of NMU's Mark Olver – and 33 points, two ahead of Miami's Jarod Palmer and Alaska's Andy Taranto. In addition, his 19 goals in all games is one behind Michigan State's Cody Tropp.
However, wrapping up the league honors won't be a focus of the sophomore this weekend.
"I've known from interviews, from guys telling me," he said. "My dad has told me too. But like I said, I've kind of looked at it in past seasons and I think that's hurt me a little bit. I don't even worry about it. At the end of the day I want to win and let everything else take care of itself."
Boyd is also chasing a title of his own, entering the weekend with 21 CCHA assists to outpace Northern Michigan's Erik Gustafsson by one, while Somma has 11 goals on the year to set a career high.
"(Zac) provides the energy and Sergio and Boyder enjoy playing together," Markell said. "It provides us with energy. You know they're going to get checked, but they show us consistency in work ethic in practice and in the games. There's points where they don't score, but that's not the only way they help us and they know that."
Ohio State is also benefiting from recent improved play by junior goaltender Dustin Carlson, who has retaken the No. 1 job in net. During the last three games, Carlson has a win and two ties while allowing only seven goals and capturing both shootouts, denying all nine opposition chances.
"Right now, Dusty has responded like you would think he would," Markell said. "He's worked really hard for it, and the guys are responding. He's staying focused and that's what we need from a junior."
Also on the line this weekend is the Ohio Cup, BSB's yearly traveling trophy that goes to the team with the best record in intrastate play. OSU and Miami enter tied because of earlier sweeps of Bowling Green, but Miami holds a slight edge when it comes to tiebreakers because of a goal differential edge compiled while beating the Falcons.
The earlier games this year between OSU and Miami do not count toward Cup play in order to keep the same the number of games each school plays against one another.