If there is one good thing about starting the Central Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs, it is that all prior records are wiped out and every team starts at 0-0-0 again.
For the Ohio State men’s hockey team, having the slate of the 2005-2006 regular season wiped clean is the best news they have had in a while.
Following a season full of disappointment and injury, the Buckeyes find themselves starting anew when they face Ferris State in Big Rapids, Mich. this weekend. The Bulldogs will welcome OSU for a best-of-three playoff series, with the winner earning a birth into the CCHA quarterfinals.
“We obviously were not happy with how the regular season went, but its an exciting feeling knowing that the regular season is over and we get to move on,” said junior defenseman Sean Collins. “This is a brand new season and hopefully we can just start over.”
OSU (15-17-5, 11-14-3 CCHA) is coming off of a disappointing weekend which saw them fall from the cusp of home-playoff ice, all the way to a disappointing 10th in the final CCHA standings. OSU dropped game one of the two-game set against Northern Michigan (20-14-2, 14-12-2 CCHA) 4-1.
An even first period saw junior forward Andrew Schembri take a pass from sophomore defenseman Jason DeSantis and deposit his 11th goal of the season on a shot from just below the right face-off circle.
The Schembri tally was all the Buckeyes could muster, however, as the Wildcats scored three unanswered goals, two of which were on the power play and one during a 5-minute major penalty to sophomore forward Matt McIlvane.
Senior goalie Dave Caruso stopped 21 shots and OSU outshot NMU by a total of 31-25, but it was to no avail.
OSU got off to a hot start in game two, silencing the Berry Events Center crowd with two first-period goals.
Schembri picked up his team, leading the 12th goal of the season and sophomore defenseman Kyle Hood contributed a behind-the-net goal to complete the Buckeye scoring.
The lead was short lived, however, as the Wildcats came back with three goals in the second period to take the lead for good and then tallied an empty-netter to close out OSU’s chance at home ice in the first round of the playoffs.
NMU used two goals in the span of 28 seconds to tie the game with under six minutes of play left in the second period. Caruso finished the game with 25 saves and Wildcats sophomore goalie Bill Zaniboni picked up the victory with 19 stops.
“It’s never easy to drop losses and forget about them,” Collins said, “But we’re trying our best to learn from the mistakes we made last weekend and throughout the season, and focus on playing well and winning in the playoffs.”
Though there has certainly been no shortage of disappointments this season, caused by both lack of performance and injuries, the Buckeyes can take solace that they successfully took three points from their first round opponent two weeks ago.
FSU (15-13-8, 10-11-7 CCHA) came into the Schottenstein Center and left with a 0-1-1 record, as OSU fought to a 3-3 tie in game one and then came back from two goals down and capitalized on sophomore forward Tom Fritsche’s goal to clinch a 3-2 victory on senior night.
OSU heads into the playoff opener gradually regaining strength, as junior forward Mathieu Beaudoin returned to the lineup against NMU after missing five weeks. The Buckeyes are led offensively by Schembri and his team leading 12 goals and Fritsche, who has amassed 11 goals and 19 assists, for a team leading 30 points.
“This comes down to guys wanting to get it done and we have to get our scoring from different areas,” OSU coach John Markell said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who have been here before, so our goal scorers have the experience to step up and our role players know what is at stake.”
When it comes to experience, the Buckeyes are second to none. This group of upperclassmen have been at the CCHA championship games the past two seasons, winning the title in 2004.
The OSU defense has become a little more human after an unreal stretch in which its team goals-against average dropped all the way to 1.86, but the defense still remains the driving force behind the team’s success. Senior captain Nate Guenin and Collins bolster a defense that currently ranks 10th in the nation.
The key to it all, however, is Buckeye senior netminder Caruso. Caruso has been nothing short of spectacular for the majority of the season, and he carries a sparkling 2.16 g.a.a. and a .914 save percentage. The senior ranks third in the country in shutouts with five, his goals-against average currently ranks 12th in the nation and he is tied for first all time at OSU with 11 career shutouts.
“I’m pleased about our defensive play, but we’ve got to be able to change that a little to get some offense,” Markell said. “We’ve been preparing for this all year and good defense becomes a norm in the playoffs, so we feel confident.”
The Buckeyes will come up against an FSU team that recovered from a rough weekend in Columbus to take three points in a home-and-home series against Michigan. The Bulldogs finished the season in seventh place in the CCHA standings and will face OSU in the playoffs for the second straight season.
Last year, the Buckeyes ran into the Bulldogs at the Schott and dispatched them in overtime of game three to earn a trip to Joe Louis Arena and the CCHA Super Six. FSU has not hosted a playoff series since the 2002-2003 season.
“Anytime you can look two weeks past and see what was successful against them and what wasn’t, it is an advantage,” Markell said. “Obviously we have different personnel now, but we can look at the tapes of us and show our guys the mistakes we made and the things that made us effective against them, and it definitely helps.”
The Bulldogs are paced offensively by senior forward Greg Rallo, who leads FSU in each offensive category with 16 goals, 21 assists and 37 points. Junior forward Mark Bomersback is also a valuable part of the attack, contributing 15 goals and 15 assists for 30 points this season.
FSU is led defensively by freshman goalie Mitch O’Keefe. O’Keefe carries a 2.70 g.a.a. into the series with OSU, and also has an even .900 save percentage for the season.
“Obviously we’re not in the best position not being at home, but we have to look at it as a new season,” Markell said. “We’re in 10th place and you want to make amends for what has happened this year.”
The puck will drop on the most important series of the Buckeyes’ season at 7:05 p.m. on Friday. The winner of the best-of-three series will go on to face one of the top four seeds in the CCHA, all of whom received a first round bye.