With Mark Osiecki hitting his stride in his second season as head coach at Ohio State, the program seemed poised for a breakout season—the culture change and off-ice work would pay off and the team would play its way back into CCHA respectability. The Buckeyes have done even better, sitting atop the conference standings heading into the holiday break after reeling off a 10-3-1 record to start CCHA play.
Heading into the season, it went without saying that Michigan State was going to need a scorer to emerge if it was to improve upon last year’s disappointment. The Spartans are off to a stronger-than-expected start with sophomore forward Lee Reimer leading the way offensively. After notching just seven points in his rookie campaign, Reimer is second in the CCHA scoring race with a 8-14—22 line in 18 games.
WHAT HAPPENED TO?
With the holiday break upon us, two of the conference’s traditional powerhouses find themselves in unfamiliar positions, looking up in the standings at teams typically trying to upset them. Both Michigan (8th place) and Miami (9th place) have struggled mightily at times; both are relatively young teams still trying to find their way. The Wolverines and RedHawks boast strong goaltending and have seen some flashes of offense from underclassmen, but they’ve yet to put all the pieces together on a consistent basis. Don’t be surprised if things start to click and both teams make a run in the second half of the season.
BEST NEW FACE
When Jeff Blashill left Kalamazoo for an assistant coaching gig with the Detroit Red Wings, Western Michigan made a big splash in signing Andy Murray to run the show. His pedigree was undeniable and he’s had success at every level, but the big question was whether he could seize on the momentum the Broncos built with last year’s trip to the NCAA Tournament. Murray’s team is tied for second place in the conference and seems well-positioned to contend for a return to the NCAAs and, potentially, a conference title.
At the beginning of a strong November during which it ran off a 4-1-1 record, Michigan State’s sweep of Western Michigan on the road at Lawson Ice Arena announced that the Spartans were going to put up a fight night in and night out. MSU might not boast a great deal of front-line scoring talent, but the sweep of the Broncos was a perfect example of a hard-working team that gets the most out of its lineup every night.
TOUGHEST ROAD OUT
Sitting in a sixth-place tie is no small achievement for Northern Michigan. The Wildcats faced Western Michigan, Ohio State, and Lake Superior State on the road and Michigan, Notre Dame, Miami, and Michigan State at home. Over the past five years, Walt Kyle’s teams have been known for making second-half runs and they’ve certainly seen where they need to be to continue that trend in 2012.
TOUGHEST ROAD IN
If Ohio State is going to win its first CCHA regular-season championship since 1972, it’ll be well earned. After opening the second half of the season with a series at Bowling Green, the Buckeyes face—in order—rival Michigan, Ferris State, Lake Superior State, Michigan State, Western Michigan, and Miami. That’s a pretty tough gauntlet, considering each of those teams have spent at least part of the season in the INCH Power Rankings. If Ohio State can close out strong, it’ll be a worthy champion.
Ohio State at Western Michigan, Feb. 10-11
Notre Dame vs./at Western Michigan, Jan. 13-14
With Ohio State jumping out to the league lead and Notre Dame and Western Michigan close behind, these two series could be instrumental in determining the frontrunner for the CCHA regular-season title. Should either team sweep, the home-and-home series between Notre Dame and Western Michigan in January could propel one or the other into position to challenge the Buckeyes; the February matchup between Ohio State and Western Michigan could tighten the championship race—or end it.
BIGGEST QUESTION ANSWERED
Where will the goals come from for Michigan? After 20 games, the answer for the Wolverines is … we still don’t know. Not really an answer, but it’s the reality. It looks like this team needs to take care of the puck and rely on some serious defense in order to win games. Last year’s team played a pretty strong offensive brand of that hockey, but that group could lean on superstars like Carl Hagelin and Louie Caporusso to bail them out with their brilliance. Freshmen Alex Guptill and Phil Di Giuseppe have played very well and veterans Chris Brown and David Wohlberg are productive players in many facets of the game, but the lack of that special scorer who can put the team on his back at crunch time is glaring.
BIGGEST QUESTION REMAINING
Can Mike Johnson and Steven Summerhays provide enough in goal to take Notre Dame back to the Frozen Four? INCH asked this question at the beginning of the year and while the Fighting Irish are tied with Western Michigan in second place in the CCHA, the question remains. The Fighting Irish have a deep group of experienced, versatile defensemen and an excellent group of forwards, but the goaltending has let them down on a few occasions. Both Johnson and Summerhays have had their moments, but they need to be more consistent.
INCH’s FIRST HALF ALL-CCHA TEAM
G–Cal Heeter, Ohio State: While Ferris State’s C.J. Motte and Taylor Nelson make a great case for this spot, it’s hard to argue with Heeter’s record in the first half. Heeter boasts an 11-2-1 record with a 2.11 goals against average and .926 save percentage, helping spur the Buckeyes’ strong start.
D–Torey Krug, Michigan State: Krug’s leadership, offensive ability, and solid defensive play have helped the young Spartans exceed preseason expectations and pile up some solid victories.
D–Zach Trotman, Lake Superior State: A 6-8—14 scoring line and a plus-minus rating of plus-5 show that Trotman’s all-around game is coming into form; he’s helped the Lakers to fourth place at the holiday break.
F–T.J. Tynan, Notre Dame: Tynan leads the CCHA with 27 points and he’s shown that his freshman year was no fluke. The sophomore has become an elite college forward and could be a Hobey Baker Award contender.
F–Danny Dries, Ohio State: Dries has notched 11 goals, leading the Buckeyes and helping his younger teammates transition to the culture of success that Coach Mark Osiecki has instilled in Columbus.
F–Reilly Smith, Miami: Smith was suspended earlier in the year and hasn’t made the waves he did last year when the Redhawks were one of the nation’s best teams. But despite the team’s struggles and his absence earlier this year, 12 goals in 18 games is very impressive.