It’s the end of November, and Mark Osiecki sounds relaxed. Maybe that’s because the Ohio State coach better understands the task at hand in Columbus, now that he has two seasons with the Buckeyes behind him.
Or maybe it’s because OSU has won three of its last four CCHA games and has climbed into a three-way tie for second place with Notre Dame and Ferris State.
“I get reminded every day that it’s a marathon,” Osiecki said, “not a sprint.”
Ah. The former.
What Osiecki and assistant coaches Steve Rohlik and Joe Exter are attempting to do in Columbus is change not just the culture of hockey at OSU but contribute to changing the culture of hockey throughout central Ohio. It’s not a new concept; John Markell, the coach whom Osiecki replaced, was firmly on board with that as well.
“Let’s grow hockey,” Osiecki said, “not so much growing Buckeye hockey alone. Let’s grow the whole pie rather than a piece of it. Let’s help hockey grow.”
That pie became exponentially larger when the NHL expanded to include the Columbus Blue Jackets, whose first season was 2000-01, but Osiecki was familiar with the culture of hockey in Ohio before the addition of an NHL team and long before he took the job at OSU. Osiecki roomed for a year at Wisconsin with Don Granato, who coached the now-defunct Columbus Chill of the ECHL from 1997 to 1999.
“Donny used to talk about how great the city was and about how much hockey there was in Columbus back then,” Osiecki said.
More than a decade after the departure of the Chill and arrival of the Blue Jackets, Columbus has one of the most active adult recreational hockey leagues in the nation and its youth hockey programs are blossoming. Many OSU hockey alumni are involved in recreational and youth hockey, Osiecki said, as well as with the Buckeyes hockey program.
Strengthening the link between OSU hockey and the community and between OSU hockey and its alumni is a primary goal of the current coaching staff.
“I spent one year in North Dakota my first year of coaching and that’s what I felt there,” Osiecki said. “It didn’t matter who was coaching, who the administration was, how the team was doing — it was all about the former players’ commitment to the program.”
One former Buckeyes and current Blue Jackets player is making the most of the NHL lockout by helping with the OSU program. Having R.J. Umberger (2000-03) involved has been a boon in unexpected ways, Osiecki said.
“He’s awesome,” Osiecki said. “It’s so much fun for us to have him around and for our players. Set aside the hockey stuff; it’s all the other things, like how does he approach life, how does he approach practice?
“They can hear it from coaches all day long but when it comes from R.J. — here’s an All-American, here’s an NHLer, he makes millions of dollars. They listen to him.”
The Buckeyes are listening to somebody. They’ve taken points in every weekend of CCHA play, including a sweep of Northern Michigan (Nov. 16-17) and a road split with Lake Superior State last weekend.
Senior goaltender Brady Hjelle, a transfer from Minnesota-Duluth, is a big part of that. Third in the nation in goals against average (1.45) and save percentage (.950), Hjelle has learned what it takes to play at this level, Osiecki said, and just in time for his final year.
“He’s played very well,” Osiecki said. “He’s just been solid. It’s two things: I think he’s matured tremendously and he’s bought into what he puts into his body. He had a great summer.”
The Buckeyes are tied for ninth nationally in scoring defense, allowing 2.08 goals per game. Hjelle’s part of that, as is freshman Collin Olson (2.69 GAA, .914 save percentage), whom Osiecki said pushes Hjelle in goal.
The sticking point for OSU is offense. The Buckeyes are averaging 2.08 goals per game (No. 50 nationally) with a power play that’s performing at 10.5 percent, 51st-best in the country.
“Obviously, you only can deal with what kind of talent you have,” Osiecki said. “We continue to bring in more and more talent.”
Osiecki said that the Buckeyes are relying on a lot of sophomores for scoring, and four of them — Tanner Fritz, Ryan Dzingel, Max McCormick and Matt Johnson — lead OSU in that department, but no one has more than five goals in 12 games and the top scorer, Fritz, has two with nine assists.
“Those guys do have high talent,” Osiecki said. “It’s just a matter of when that’s going to emerge.”
Osiecki said, too, that he and the coaching staff guard against a waning confidence in the offense because it can “leak” to other aspects of the game, but it doesn’t seem to be a problem so far. “We haven’t felt that way in the locker room at all,” he said. “Even R.J. Umberger said, ‘It is what it is.'”
And if Umberger said so, you know the Buckeyes are listening.
Ohio State fans should keep an ear out for talk of a new hockey-only arena. According to Osiecki, the plans are tentative but real for a facility to house only men’s and women’s ice hockey.
A winter kind of mood
Osiecki’s not the only CCHA coach with a sunny attitude this week. In Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., Jim Roque is — according to Jim Roque — excellent.
“There’s snow,” he said. “I can make my rink.”
No one could fault Roque for anticipating a cooperative winter; the summer of 2012 was less than that for Lake Superior State hockey. Defenseman Zach Trotman, a junior last season, and forward Kyle Jean, a sophomore, left for the pros at the end of 2011-12, taking with them 23 of LSSU’s 102 goals.
Then there was Colin Campbell, a forward who netted nine goals as a sophomore last season. Campbell is missing the first half of this season because of his second shoulder surgery.
Then starting goaltender Kevin Kapalka was injured in a game against Michigan State Oct. 26, so autumn wasn’t looking promising for the injured Lakers, either.
In spite of these setbacks, Roque remains upbeat, mainly because the rest of the Lakers as a group are improvising well.
“I’ve been really happy with the group,” Roque said. “I can’t complain one bit.”
That’s because the Lakers have split with every CCHA opponent this season and have enough points to be sitting in the middle of the standings heading into December, ahead of teams — for now — who were expected to finish above LSSU.
“It seems that everyone we’ve had to plug in has done well,” Roque said. “Every time we seem to lose a guy, another guy steps in.”
The most pleasant surprise among Lakers substitutes has been junior goaltender Kevin Murdock, who is 4-5 this season with a .921 save percentage and 2.57 goals against average. Murdock played five games for Minnesota State in 2009-10 before transferring to LSSU. He played five games last season for the Lakers.
“He did a great job over the last month,” Roque said. Kapalka returned against Ohio State last weekend, but Roque said, “We’ll split them the next four weeks. If anything, Murdock playing well, it helps Kaps’ play. He [Kapalka] doesn’t have to feel the pressure, like it’s all on him.”
Like a lot of teams in the CCHA, the Lakers are a squad struggling with offense, averaging 2.43 goals per game. “You’ve got to score,” Roque said. “You can play hard; you can play well. You’ve got to score more goals.”
Roque isn’t worried about that, though. “Our guys are working hard. We’re getting our chances.”
The Lakers had their chances against Alabama-Huntsville on Nov. 16, putting 36 shots on net and losing 2-1. It was the Chargers’ first win of the season, UAH’s only win so far.
“Like I told the guys,” Roque said, “they beat Denver last year and Denver went to the NCAA tournament. Sometimes losing is the best teacher. In the three games since, we have played really well.”
LSSU is 2-1 since that loss.
The Lakers play their next four games on the road, two against Notre Dame and two against Miami. “That’ll be the real test for us,” Roque said. “These next two weeks will tell us more about our team.”
Roque on parity
The Lakers seem to be the CCHA in miniature this season: injuries, good goaltending, low offense, splitting series. Roque said that the parity the league is experiencing is due, in part, to professional hockey.
Said Roque: “It seems like every year it gets balanced out a little bit. I hate to say this, but pro hockey has helped a lot of teams. When Notre Dame’s good, they lose Riley Sheahan. Michigan’s good, they lose the kid from Texas, [Chris] Brown.
“A lot of schools have done a great job of recruiting but a hard time to hang on them. We all kind of get punched in the gut a little bit and we lose guys and then it becomes a really competitive league. You try to build your team but it’s so hard.
“If [players] are not happy, they’ll go major junior. Some schools lose them in the front end and some schools lose them later on. Throw Torey Krug back in Michigan State’s defense and chase him around all year and that’s a different team.”
Jeff Jackson on officiating
In my Monday blog, I posted about the goal that was waved off at the end of Friday’s North Dakota-Notre Dame game. I said that it was a last-minute goal, but it was really during Notre Dame’s power play with a little less than four minutes to go in the third.
I also quoted Jeff Jackson, as quoted in the Notre Dame news release following the game. That release didn’t contain the entire quote, though. Jackson was upset about the call. Thank heavens that Steve Lowe published the whole quote in his game story in the South Bend Tribune.
“Regardless of what they said, it was just an awful call,” Jackson said. “The puck was free … I could see it from the bench with one eye.”
Not surprisingly, the CCHA fined Jackson for his comments. I remain firmly in the no-fine camp regarding comments by coaches about officiating, but the league sees it differently.
Players of the week
Anders Lee and Hjelle are this week’s repeat offenders.
Rookie of the week: Lake Superior State defenseman Eric Drapluk, who had two assists in the Lakers’ split versus Ohio State.
Offensive player of the week: Notre Dame junior Lee, who had three goals against North Dakota — four, if you count the one his coach saw from the bench with one eye. Lee had an assist, too.
Defenseman of the week: Northern Michigan senior Scott Macaulay, who had the game-winning overtime goal versus Alaska Friday and an assist in NMU’s tie with the Nanooks Saturday.
Goaltender of the week: Ohio State senior Hjelle, who stopped 31 shots in a 4-1 win over Lake Superior State Friday and another 18 in a 3-2 loss Saturday, finishing the weekend with a 1.14 goals against average and .961 save percentage.
1. Boston College
3. New Hampshire
5. Notre Dame
7. North Dakota
8. Western Michigan
9. Ferris State
10. Boston University
15. Colorado College
17. St. Cloud State
20. Holy Cross