Ohio State surging, but taking precautions to avoid complacency

Ah, December. It’s a month of diminishing daylight, old and varied traditions, introspection and assessment. As we approach the end of the calendar year — and, more importantly, the middle of the 2011-12 season — we tend to reflect on the immediate past and look ahead to the near future.

I hope that’s not what you want from this, the last notes column before the holidays, because those things will have to wait. This week, let’s take a look at those who give credit where it’s due, give credit to those who take one for the team and credit those who learn from their mistakes.

On top for a reason

With a home sweep of Lake Superior State last weekend, Ohio State solidified its position at the top of the CCHA standings by what passes for a sizeable margin in this season of parity, seven whole points. The Buckeyes’ 5-2 and 2-1 wins extended their current unbeaten streak to 11 games (10-0-1), the second-longest in the nation, giving them plenty to crow about.

Second-year coach Mark Osiecki, however, wants to make sure that they don’t believe their own press. After the 5-2 win Friday — which may have felt like it came too easily — Osiecki and the coaching staff called a team meeting Saturday morning and had a little chat with the players.

“It was probably the first once since the first game at Notre Dame [Oct. 20], and our guys responded well. They really did,” said Osiecki. “I thought they took the criticism well. Hats off to our captains who grabbed the team after and settled the players down and really hit some points home. I thought our guys responded very well.”

OK, so I am not exactly certain what was said in that meeting to require settling down of players, but whatever it was, it worked.

“I think that they were getting a little full of themselves,” Osiecki said of his players. “I think that they were reading the situation of where we’re at. Our bad habits were creeping in and as soon as those bad habits creep in you’re in trouble. We wanted to nip that in the bud quick.”

The result was a much more solid win Saturday, said Osiecki, in spite of the scoring difference between the games. “I think our guys played a solid team game and did a lot of the little things well. It was fun to see that response.”

Kudos to Osiecki and his staff for keeping his team in check and for crediting them publicly.

Believing for a reason

Ohio State is a team that is surprising me this season in its ability seemingly to turn around a program so quickly. Michigan State is another one. While Osiecki clearly had growing pains with the Buckeyes last season — players dismissed at midseason, a ninth-place finish — things in East Lansing are different for Tom Anastos in his first year.

Anastos has inherited a team of Spartans players ready to buy into what he’s selling, and that’s translating into good things for MSU. Consider what the Spartans have done recently. First they defeated and tied then-No. 3 Minnesota, and then they swept last-place Bowling Green the week before their home-and-home series with Michigan.

Getting players to perform at the level necessary to compete against a top team is one thing, but getting them to maintain their focus on their next opponent — someone lower in the standings and easily overlooked — while anticipating a home-and-home series with their biggest rivals is quite another.

Who gets the credit? Anastos, according to senior Brett Perlini.

“I think Coach Anastos did a great job in our mental preparation with that Minnesota series and obviously Michigan next week,” Perlini said. “It was a good weekend for us. We’ve got to play hard no matter who it is. We wanted obviously to play some good games this series and ride that momentum into next week.”

Taking the fall

After those two losses to Michigan State, Bowling Green coach Chris Bergeron dished a little perspective.

“I think there are some nights when we’ve been better than others defending lines, but tonight was not one of them,” he said. “It’s not our lack of working on it, or teaching it, or trying to coach it, but obviously we’re not doing something right. The message isn’t getting across.

“The execution level is nowhere near good enough for Division I hockey, and obviously that has to change.”

Bergeron wasn’t the only one taking responsibility for a team’s losing performance last weekend. After Notre Dame lost at home 9-2 to Northeastern Friday, coach Jeff Jackson told reporters to look no further than the head coach himself.

“I think this may be the worst loss that I’ve experienced since I’ve been here,” said Jackson. “I wasn’t very fond of the effort but I have to take responsibility. I didn’t have the guys ready to play tonight.”

Learning from experience

With a home sweep of Miami, Northern Michigan earned six points and extended its win streak to three games — both important, both impressive. As impressive and important, though, is the way in which the Wildcats kept their tempers in check against the most penalized team in the league and fourth-most penalized team in the nation.

At the end of the Wildcats’ 2-1 win over the Spartans on Nov. 19, a fight erupted that cost both teams key players for their following weekends. When things got rough at the end of the game, coach Walt Kyle did everything he could to get his players off the ice; when all was sorted, however, NMU’s final penalty minute total for the whole contest was 65, inflated by the disqualifications earned by defensemen Wade Epp, Kyle Follmer and Scott Macauley as the buzzer sounded. The three sat out the Wildcats’ 2-1 win over Miami Friday night.

In Saturday’s 5-1 game, the RedHawks took 14 penalties for 39 minutes, and rather than finding themselves in the box as much as well, the Wildcats capitalized on three of their power plays.

Sophomore Stephan Vigier told esteemed colleague Matt Wellens of the Marquette Mining Journal that Kyle was instrumental in helping the team maintain its composure. “We knew we had to be smart and it helped us big time in the end,” said Vigier. “Missing three of our top D-men is a tough thing to go through. We learned from it and I think it helped us tonight.”

Another coach that continues to impress me with his ability to keep his team focused is Alaska’s Dallas Ferguson. In the CCHA column the day before Thanksgiving, I wrote about Ferguson’s ability to keep his team focused through early injuries and many one-goal losses. After another one-goal loss last weekend — a heartbreaking 1-0 overtime loss to Michigan a day after beating the Wolverines 4-3 — Ferguson’s ability to keep his team on track was evidenced in assistant captain Aaron Gens’ postgame comments.

“One thing we talked about in the locker room was that we were in a lot of one-goal games,” Gens told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. “Now we’re a better team because of it, because we know what it feels like to be there. We won four of six and it’s going to be a great break because of it, and I think we’re going to do nothing but go up from here.”

Players of the week

Rookie of the week: Michigan State’s Brent Darnell, who had a goal and three assists against Bowling Green.

Offensive player of the week: Northern Michigan’s Tyler Gron, who had the first goal in NMU’s win over Miami Friday and three assists Saturday.

Defenseman of the week: Western Michigan’s Matt Tennyson, for the second time this season. Tennyson had two goals in WMU’s 4-2 win over Ferris State Friday, including the game winner, and an assist Saturday.

Goaltender of the week: Ohio State’s Cal Heeter, also for the second time this season. Heeter had 58 saves (.951 save percentage) in OSU’s sweep of Lake Superior State.

My ballot

1. Minnesota-Duluth
2. Minnesota
3. Boston College
4. Ohio State
5. Colorado College
6. Western Michigan
7. Notre Dame
8. Boston University
9. Merrimack
10. Denver
11. Michigan State
12. Ferris State
13. Lake Superior State
14. Union
15. Northern Michigan
16. Colgate
17. Cornell
18. Massachusetts-Lowell
19. Air Force
20. Miami

If the season ended today, by the way, seven CCHA teams would make the NCAA tournament, according to the PairWise Rankings.

On the way

As I said at the start, this is the last notes column of the first half of the season. During our little down time, though, I’ll blog a few times with at least one entry looking back at the first half of the season.

My first column back from the break — between Christmas and New Year’s Day — will be a look ahead at the second half of the season.

Somewhere in all of it, too, will be my mother’s recipe for cutout cookies so that you can enjoy the cookies that I know several current pro players made in the past with their own moms, from this very recipe, while they were mere lads in the CCHA.

As always, hit Twitter (@paulacweston), email ([email protected]) or just comment below. Try to avoid the naughty list, though, OK?