Following three consecutive trips to the 16-team NCAA tournament, high expectations were heaped on the Ohio State men’s hockey team entering last season. The Buckeyes were tabbed by the media and coaches as the top team in the CCHA pre-season polls and were ranked as high as No. 2 in the national ranking.
But the season would not go as expected for the Buckeyes. Struggling with an anemic power play and a number of injuries, the team was unable to live up to the hype as they were swept out of the first round of the CCHA playoffs by Ferris State.
They posted a dismal record (15-19-5 overall, 11-14-3 CCHA) and failed to make the NCAA Tournament.
Last season’s letdown has lowered everyone’s expectations for the 2006-07 season. Everyone except the Buckeyes themselves that is. The team believes it has some unfinished business to tend to — making amends for last year and silencing its critics, all while missing its leading scorer to begin the year.
The players got to work early, putting in 6 a.m. workouts each weekday of the spring quarter.
“Those workouts didn’t make us forget about last year, so there’s still a bad taste about that,” captain and senior defenseman Sean Collins said. “We still feel like we’re coming into the season with something to prove.”
The Buckeyes were given even more motivation when CCHA coaches picked the Buckeyes to finish a distant fourth behind Michigan State, Michigan and Miami in the conference, while the media predicted a sixth-place finish . However, the team relishes its position.
“I think we’ll be a team that is more successful as an underdog, instead of having the bull’s-eye on our chest like last year,” said sophomore forward Corey Elkins after OSU trounced Guelph 5-1 in its lone pre-season game at the Schottenstein Center Saturday.
“If we look back at last year, the rankings don’t matter,” junior forward Matt McIlvane said. “We were ranked No. 2 and look how the year went.”
Not only will OSU have to overcome its detractors, but the team will be forced to begin the season without the services of Tom Fritsche. The junior forward paced the Scarlet and Gray with 30 points (11 goals, 19 assists) in 2005-06, but has been sidelined indefinitely after being hospitalized for severe ulcerative colitis, an intestinal illness.
His teammates are hopeful for his successful return. “He’s strong-willed and has a big heart,” senior forward Kenny Bernard said. “So he should be able to bounce back from this.”
OSU is returning with its top seven scorers from a year ago, including Andrew Schembri who led the team with 12 goals.
“Andrew just never stops,” Mathieu Beaudoin said of his fellow senior. “He’s only 5-foot-6, but he’s not afraid of anything. He’ll go and go and go.”
Crucial to OSU’s turnaround will be improvement on special teams, especially the power play. The Buckeyes converted only 10.6 percent of man advantages last season, posting a dismal 9.2 percent success rate in conference play. One way OSU feels it can be better on the power play and on offense in general, is in its alignment and practicing shots close to the goal.
“We’ve actually been working on how we want to be around the net so that we have guys in spots where they can go top shelf, high, or low,” Elkins said. “You’ve got someone there to jump on it.”
The preparation paid off Saturday, as three of the five Buckeyes goals in the exhibition win came on follow-up shots just outside the crease, including one on the power play.
If the Buckeyes are to find success this season, they will also need to play strong in the net. The departures of Dave Caruso and Ian Keserich have left OSU’s hopes resting on the shoulders of two freshmen goaltenders. Despite their youth, Joseph Palmer, formerly of the U.S. U-18 National Team, and Nick Filion, who played last year with the Cornwall (Ontario) Colts of the Central Junior Hockey League, have received high praise and have the confidence of their teammates and coach.
“The two goalies are amazing,” Beaudoin said. “We got really lucky to get a guy like Nick Fillion at the last minute. Palmer’s been drafted in the NHL (by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2006), he’s big, fast, and a pretty good goalie.”
“I think they know that there’s a job out there for them to do,” said coach John Markell, who is at the helm of the Buckeyes for a 12th season. “They both have bright futures.”
The Buckeyes will be playing with a purpose as they begin the season with a two-game home series against Lake Superior State this weekend.
“If they haven’t been thinking about (last year) for the last three, four months, then there’s something wrong,” said Markell. “That should’ve been their motivation from the day we got beat out.”