There's no disputing the effectiveness of senior goaltender Brady Hjelle, whose .950 save percentage is second in the nation and whose 1.46 goals-against average is third. The International Falls, Minn., native has been so good that he was named the CCHA Goaltender of the Month and the BSB Icer of the Month.
"The way Brady is playing right now and with the way he finished the year last year, it's great where he's at right now," Head coach Mark Osiecki said. "He was thrown into a couple of tough situations last year and it didn't go his way. It's great for him to see his maturity level, how he prepared himself last summer. Hats off to him."
But as the Buckeyes get ready to host a pair of games against No. 5 Miami (Ohio) this weekend at Value City Arena (Friday, 7 p.m., Big Ten Network; Saturday, 8 p.m.), it's worth remembering that one man does not make a defense in hockey.
Hjelle's stats have been out of this world, but the netminder has been helped by a defense that despite some early-season injuries has settled into one of the best in the nation. Overall, the Buckeyes' scoring defense of 1.94 goals allowed per game is sixth in the country, and Hjelle knows that he's had some help when it comes to keeping pucks out of the net.
"The team has a lot to do with it," Hjelle said. "They're playing really well in front of me and clearing out rebounds. I only have to make a save every once in a while on a good chance, but the team is doing a really good job in front of me."
Much of the credit has to go to a group of defensemen that have settled in. The Buckeyes have found three consistent pairings in senior Brandon Martell and sophomore Justin DaSilva, senior Devon Krogh and sophomore Al McLean, and junior Curtis Gedig and freshman Craig Dalrymple. The Buckeyes are 5-2-1 and have allowed 12 goals in eight games since those lines were put together when freshman Sam Jardine went down with an arm injury.
In addition, the Buckeyes are getting a solid team defensive game. The forwards are not afraid to back check to shut down opposing rushes, and the whole team is cutting down the time and space opposing forwards have in the offensive zone.
"The comments coming back from a lot of my buddies in the NHL was how hard the guys played," Osiecki said after the Buckeyes played two national TV games two weeks ago vs. Michigan State and allowed only one goal. "We don't have to talk much about defensive hockey because our guys take care of all the little details. We have good speed … and as a result, going back to defense, the back pressure is tremendous. When we watch video it jumps off the screen and their work habits with it.
"Chris Chelios was there and we talked for a long time after the game (Nov. 30) and he stressed a lot of the little things that we're doing well."
That much has been appreciated by those charged with keeping goals out of the Buckeye net.
"I think our forwards have been really helping a lot with back pressure, which allows the defense to be aggressive and try to cut off the blue line," Krogh said. "We're not giving up a lot of chances on line rushes and that's really helping our success."
RedHawk Rivalry RedHot?
In the mid-2000s, the fact that both Ohio State and Miami wear red was appropriate given the heat and intensity of the rivalry between the in-state foes.
For example, the teams played six times during the 2003-04 season, with the Buckeyes getting the last laugh by first beating the RedHawks on the final day of the regular season to keep them from the CCHA title and then coming back to down Miami in overtime in the league semifinals on the way to the championship.
But since that season, the teams haven't finished closer than seven points away in the league standings, with Miami finishing above the Buckeyes each of the past seven seasons. Since the start of the 2005-06 campaign, the RedHawks boast a 20-7-5 record against the Buckeyes and beat the team in the 2010 league playoffs.
The rivalry is still strong, there's no doubt about that, but the Buckeyes want to keep progressing toward Miami's level. Since Osiecki took over, the teams have split six games, with the Buckeyes winning one last season in Oxford.
"It's Miami," Martell said. "I like this rivalry better (than Michigan). It's in-state and when you think of two schools going at it, I think Miami and Ohio State is a pretty good one."
The RedHawks – who always bring plenty of fans to Columbus – enter with a 10-3-3 record and are second in the CCHA, four points ahead of Ohio State, with a 7-3-2-2 mark. Austin Czarnik and Riley Barber are atop the league with identical 7-12-19 scoring lines, while freshman goaltenders Jay Williams (8-2-2, 2.15) and Ryan McKay (2-1-1, 0.48) have split time in goal for a team that's allowed only 1.75 goals per game.
In addition, Barber and Dublin native Sean Kuraly will accompany Osiecki to the World Junior Championships U.S. camp after the series, showing the high-level young talent the RedHawks have.
"I think they're really skilled up front and even on their D," Ohio State forward Max McCormick said. "They have a lot of good players. They've just built a good culture at Miami, and I think they produce good football players ever year. They play with a lot of confidence and they're a good team every year."
The Buckeyes will have a chance to continue to see that, as well – Osiecki said the rivals will keep playing next season when OSU moves to the Big Ten and Miami to the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
In addition, the teams will be playing for the BSB Ohio Cup, the traveling trophy that goes to the best team intrastate play that Miami won last year. The Buckeyes earned four points and Bowling Green two when the squads played in October, while the RedHawks will be making their Ohio Cup debut for the season.
Instead of the usual home-and-home series, the teams are playing twice in a row in each other's buildings because Value City Arena is booked for the return matchup on March 1-2 with the state high school wrestling tournament. The Buckeyes will travel to Oxford for that two-game set.
--Osiecki has said for much of the season that he doesn't want either of his goaltenders – Hjelle and highly regarded freshman Collin Olson – getting cold, but he does plan to have Hjelle start his fifth consecutive game in the Friday night opener.
"It's a game-by-game decision right now and Brady has certainly earned the opportunity to continue to go," the OSU coach said.
--Ohio State has continued to use a rotating captainship this season, and Gedig, junior Travis Statchuk and sophomore Ryan Dzingel will do the honors this weekend. They are the first players to repeat as captains this season after having previously served two-week shifts.
"It's nice," Osiecki said of the rotation. "It gives an opportunity for guys to step up, say certain things, be visible, have a ‘C' on their sweater, but it doesn't forget the other guys that were part of it. They don't go away. They're part of the leadership group."
--Despite the fact the Ohio State offense has struggled to score consistently, there are some threats to watch. Dzingel is seventh in the league with 14 points and had an eight-game point streak snapped Saturday at Robert Morris, while classmate Tanner Fritz has 13 points to tie for eighth.
However, those players struggled last week, the head coach said, as the Buckeyes lost to and tied RMU.
"In sports across the board – if Aaron Rodgers doesn't play well, the Packers are going to struggle," he said. "It's no different for us. I don't think Ryan Dzingel, Max McCormick, Tanner Fritz and Chris Crane had their ‘A' games, our go-to guys, for whatever reasons."
--OSU players finished final exams this week and will return home once the series is over for the holiday break before returning for the second half Dec. 26.