With nine freshmen, 13 sophomores and only two juniors and three seniors, Ohio State coach John Markell
admitted feeling a bit nervous looking down the bench during the first few games of the season.
"Sometimes I'd look down there and you only see one senior on the bench and you're like 'OK, this could be interesting,'" Markell acknowledged. "You see all these sophomores and freshmen and you wonder how they are going to handle pressure situations and big games."
But even as his team struggled to a 5-6-1 start to the season, Markell was impressed by the poise and leadership his young squad was showing and started to realize he didn't have to be nervous.
"Here these kids are, thrown into these big-time games and they were handling themselves like veterans," he said. "I didn't worry because they were proving they belonged here and that they can lead each other."
Since that rough start, the Buckeyes have gone 11-1-2, with an 11-game win streak. Markell believes the bumpy road before the streak helped this team bond and gain the experience needed to compete at a high level every weekend.
"At the beginning of the season, all these new freshmen were just learning the ropes," Markell said. "We played Miami back-to-back to open the season, then we were at Denver for two games and then in Michigan against a very good veteran team. So that was a tall order for a veteran team, let alone a young team like us that is trying to find an identity and learn all the systems we're using.
"We had to establish lines, penalty-kill units, the power play, and this was all happening on the fly. They also need to learn what they were going to be held accountable for, but these kids worked really hard and they didn't get too low when we lost or too high when we won, which is a great quality to have. Once we started to score and get some wins under our belt, the confidence came because we were being rewarded for our hard work."
Ohio State also found another key element to winning -- a reliable goaltender in sophomore Dustin Carlson, who enters this weekend's two-game set at Alaska with a 14-4-2 record, a 2.24 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage.
"Dustin Carlson is one of, if not the biggest reasons we got rolling," Markell said. "We also hadn't established a starting goaltender. We were using a rotation, waiting for someone to be consistent and that ended up being a sophomore in Dusty. He has just seized the moment and been so dependable for us.
"The team responded to that and has played great in front of him because they have that confidence he will be there. He just has a calming effect on the team."
The Buckeyes named fifth-year senior Zach Pelletier and sophomore Peter Boyd as the captains this season. The blend of youth and veteran leadership between the two is representative of the team as a whole -- while there's youth, they have numerous players who act as unofficial captains.
"Pelletier obviously has the experience and is a big part of this dressing room, but Boyd also showed us that work ethic we want in all our players and the ability to lead, so that's why we felt comfortable going with a sophomore as a captain," Markell said. "But there's a lot of silent leaders on this team that kids feed off. Zac Dalpe
, a freshman, is very vocal and enthusiastic, and sophomore Sergio Somma is a really passionate kid. So there's just such a good blend of personalities and I think that's helped a lot."
The Buckeyes will continue their baptism by fire with a tough final stretch. After the two games at Alaska this weekend, they host No. 1 Notre Dame on Feb. 6 and 8, play at Michigan State on Feb. 13-14, host Michigan Feb. 20-21 and close the season with a home-and-home series with Miami. But based on their response to the rigors and pressure of Division I college hockey so far, Markell is confident his group can continue to impress.
"It’s a tough stretch for sure," Markell said, "but these kids have proven they can play with anyone and they know how to handle themselves."
On Campus clips
-- Denver has suspended head coach George Gwozdecky one game for violating an NCAA rule that does not allow an ejected coach to communicate with or contact team personnel in any manner until a game is completed. Gwozdecky was ejected at the 9:30 mark of the second period during Denver’s 2-2 tie at North Dakota on Jan. 24. Gwozdecky watched the second period on a television in the media room, but communicated via headset to coaches on the bench during the third period and overtime from the press box. Assistant coach Steve Miller will take over the head-coaching duties in place of Gwozdecky, who will return for the Pioneers' game against the Seawolves on Jan. 31. ... Former Babson and Providence coach Steve Stirling will be awarded the John MacInnes Award from the American Hockey Coaches Association. Established by the AHCA in 1982 to honor former Michigan Tech coach John MacInnes, the award recognizes people who have shown a great concern for amateur hockey and youth programs. The recipients have had high winning percentages as well as outstanding graduating percentages among their former players. The winners of this award have helped young men grow not only as hockey players and as people. … Denver assistant coach Steve Miller, who has been an assistant on coach George Gwozdecky's staff at Miami and now at Denver for 18 years, will be awarded the Terry Flanagan Award. The award is named in honor of the former UNH player and Bowling Green assistant and honors an assistant coach's career body of work.