Ohio State men’s hockey coach Mark Osiecki has seen enough through a dozen games to know this season’s team is the real deal and not a flash in the pan like the 2011-12 squad that started hot but finished cold.
A year ago at this time the Buckeyes were in the midst of a stretch that carried them to the No. 2 ranking in the country by early January but the dream turned to a nightmare as the young Buckeyes won only one time in their final 14 games.
This time around, OSU seems ready to build on their early season success.
“You see it every day in practice,” Osiecki said. “We’re so much further ahead than we were last year. Last year we got on a roll and got a little bit of attention there but there was a little bit of smoke and mirrors the first part of last year.”
The Buckeyes are 5-4-3 overall and their 4-2-2-1 record in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association is good for a three-way tie for second heading into the series at Michigan State (4-6-2, 3-4-1-0 CCHA) on Friday at 8:05 p.m. and 6:05 p.m. Saturday in East Lansing.
OSU’s record is impressive considering they have played twice as many road games.
“If we can find a way to get some points on Friday night that certainly makes Saturday a bonus,” Osiecki said. “That’s kind of how we’re approaching it.”
It’s helped that the Buckeyes have been one of the better teams defensively, especially senior Brady Hjelle, who’s split starts with freshman Collin Olson.
Hjelle (pronounced jelly) is third in the NCAA with a 1.45 goals average, two shutouts and a .950 save percentage despite a 2-2-1 record. He leads the CCHA with a sterling 0.62 GAA and a .977 save percentage (128 shots, 125 saves).
He has been the first star in all four league starts and a two-time CCHA Goaltender of the Week this season and has not allowed more than one goal in a game since giving up six in the season opener at Minnesota Duluth on Oct. 12.
“The team has a lot to do with it,” he said. “They’re playing really well in front of me, clearing out rebounds. I have to make a good save once in awhile.”
Osiecki has alternated the starts between Hjelle and Olson (2-2-1, 2.68 GGA, .914) but pulled Olson early in the last game, a 3-2 loss at Lake Superior State on Saturday.
There’s a chance the rotation could be broke this weekend with Hjelle getting both starts but when he met with the media on Wednesday he was unsure what would happen.
“I have no idea,” Hjelle said. “That’s up to the coaches. They make the call. We’re both playing well.”
As is the team, said Osiecki.
“If they have one poor period, one poor game they turn around and have a good period, a good game,” he said. “It’s their character.
“Obviously we’re young. Maybe you can say young and dumb a little bit and just turn around and play, ‘Drop the puck, let’s go. Next best shift,’ type of thing.”
Whatever it is, the pieces could be in place for a special season.