Season On Line As Icers Face Rivals

It's officially do-or-die time for the Ohio State men's hockey team. If the Buckeyes want their 2009-10 season to continue, they must win two of three games against rival Miami this weekend, which is not an easy task. The RedHawks dominated the CCHA and the Buckeyes this season and boast the No. 2 ranking in the country.

This year, the Ohio State men's hockey team took two of a possible 12 points – 16.7 percent – in four games with rival Miami (Ohio).

That's not very good, but that actually served to put the Buckeyes in line with the rest of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.

The No. 2 RedHawks had no troubles in wrapping up the league's regular-season championship, coasting to the title with a 20-point edge on their nearest competitor and a goal differential of plus-61 (100 to 39) in 28 league games. With a 21-2-5-2 record, Miami took 70 of 84 possible points – or 83.3 percent.

Of all the draws one could come up against in the conference playoffs, Miami would be the team to avoid, but that's precisely the one the Buckeyes have drawn. Eighth-seeded Ohio State faces the RedHawks in a best-of-three CCHA quarterfinal series starting tonight, with the winner moving on to the league tournament in Detroit's Joe Louis Arena.

"You're going down to a difficult situation," Ohio State head coach John Markell said of the series, which will take place in Miami's Steve Cady Arena. "Obviously they've earned the right to be at home, and their record speaks for itself. They're a tough team to beat. It's going to take everything we got in order to get it done – plus some."

With words like that, it's fair to wonder what exactly the Buckeyes have in their corner going down to a building in which they've won only one game – and in need two wins to advance and keep their season alive.

For starters, there's the Buckeyes recent run of play. In the last seven games, Ohio State has a 3-1-3 record, capped off by a two-game sweep of a first-round playoff series last weekend against Notre Dame in which the Buckeyes never trailed and won by an aggregate score of 11-3.

Also included in that span of good form is a 0-0 tie followed by a shootout win against the RedHawks to conclude the regular season Feb. 27.

"We've been battling really hard," goaltender Dustin Carlson said. "We got the shootout win against Miami and then this last week we played Notre Dame. They were a team that kind of underachieved like we did this year, but they're still a great team. The second game where we scored eight goals, I definitely think our team is going to be riding that hard. Whenever you get games like that is when you start to roll."

For the recent hot play, Markell credited both the play of Carlson and the team's offense. Carlson has recently rediscovered the form that made him the team's No. 1 goalie all of last season; he tied his career high with 47 saves in the second game against Notre Dame and has allowed three goals in the last three games. Then there's an offense that has been opportunistic, including an eight-goal showing the second game against the Fighting Irish.

But Markell knows it won't be that easy against a Miami team that presents an entirely new challenge. Whereas the Buckeyes had the benefit of going up against a freshman goalie and a struggling offense vs. Notre Dame, Miami boasts the first-team All-CCHA goalie in Cody Reichard and the best scoring offense in the league, including first-team all-league forward Jarod Palmer and second teamers Andy Miele and Tommy Wingels.

"We have confidence, but we also know that Miami is different," Markell said. "These guys are pretty well tested and they know."

Reichard is protected by a defense that makes it hard for even the best players to create space. The RedHawks have allowed 1.72 goals per game this year, and Ohio State has only four goals in as many games against Miami this year.

The Buckeyes hope to continue the varied scoring that came in the Notre Dame series. Senior Mathieu Picard had three goals playing on an excellent third line after just two in the regular season, while second liner Hunter Bishop had a hat trick in the second contest against ND after struggling of late. Then there's the top line of newly minted first-team All-CCHA pick Zac Dalpe along with Peter Boyd and Sergio Somma.

"That would be huge if we can get some secondary scoring," said junior Kyle Reed, who has a hat trick and a two-goal game in his career at Miami and who is on the third line with Picard. "They have some shut-down guys for the top two lines, so you want to have something to come back with. This weekend we played well and hopefully we can bring it into the weekend. We're feeling good as a line and we're teasing each other a little bit which always brings the chemistry up a little bit."

The Buckeyes will have to be ready from the opening faceoff, which they have not been against Miami this season. Ohio State was blown out of both Friday night games in the season series, losing 6-0 at home in December (before coming back with a better effort in a 4-2 loss at Miami a night later) and then falling 6-2 in Oxford the evening before the scoreless tie.

Dalpe agreed that part of the problem is that Miami's deep team comes at squads in waves, which means the Buckeyes have to be ready and focused for all 60 minutes. As a result, Miami was 12-0-2-1 in opening night CCHA games this year, compared to 9-2-3-1 in second games.

The hope, then, for the Buckeyes is that having played Miami two weeks ago takes that edge off and should help OSU possess the requisite intensity from the opening draw.

"I think our guys know we're going to get hit, they're going to be physical," Markell said. "They're going to try to run us out of that building and establish it right away. I don't think we were prepared for how physical they were going to be the last time. Hopefully we can get that kind of competitive level back because we're going to need it."

Dalpe thinks that won't be a problem.

"I hate to use it all the time, but (we have a sense of) urgency," he said. "Especially coming down the stretch here, that's something we've been focused on and I think practice has shown it too. That's something we've been bringing forward on the ice so I think that's the biggest part, being more urgent."

The rivalry with Miami should add another layer of intensity to the proceedings. The teams play four times each year and as a result have one of the strongest rivalries in college hockey going. OSU is 2-5 all time against Miami in the postseason, but the Buckeyes have won the only such contest since 1997, an overtime triumph in the CCHA semifinals on the way to the league postseason title in 2004.

"I think the emotions are going to be flowing throughout that rink, not just on the ice but off the ice as well," Reed said. "It's going to a great game to see. All weekend, it's going to be a good battle. Both teams are going to give it all they got."

And for what it's worth, all of the Buckeyes questioned said they can't wait for the series, including playing in Miami's home building. However, the usual atmosphere might not be present because the weekend coincides with Miami's spring break. Last year for the CCHA quarterfinals, the crowd was just above half capacity as the RedHawks lost a three-game series with Northern Michigan.

This year, both of Miami's CCHA losses happened to come at home, but the Buckeyes still expect an atmosphere worth savoring.

"I think that type of atmosphere can make you or break you," Reed said. "It's one of the liveliest in college hockey and they have a good tradition there. Playing there reminds me of a few years back going to the old junior rinks where those barns are just so loud. I love it."

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