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On Campus: Ohio State is No. 1 first-half surprise

Thursday, 12.29.2011 / 9:00 AM / On Campus

By Bob Snow - NHL.com Correspondent

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On Campus: Ohio State is No. 1 first-half surprise
On Campus takes a look at the top-10 stories of the first half and places Ohio State's 13-4-1 run and No. 4 national ranking atop the list.

The Top 10 mid-season surprises

No. 10 -- The Alabama-Huntsville Chargers have endured an independent schedule amidst the announcement that their program will end this year; then, just recently, a reversal of that decision. Throughout this bureaucratic roller coaster, Chris Luongo and his boys have played with dignity and character.

No. 9 -- The Clarkson Golden Knights, under first-year coach Casey Jones, are 9-7-4 overall in the ECACHL, and attempting to bring the glory days back to Potsdam. "We have had terrific goaltending," Jones told NHL.com. "Our competitiveness and discipline will be our focal points second half."

No. 8 -- The Ferris State Bulldogs are 7-6-1 in the CCHA, a point behind Lake Superior State, and 11-6-1 overall. They went to the NCAA tourney just once in program history, led by Chris Kunitz in 2003. "We would like to finish in the top 4 of the CCHA league standings," said long-time coach Bob Daniels. "Our four senior defensemen have been outstanding."

No. 7 -- The Lake Superior State Lakers are 7-6-1 in the CCHA, a point out of the top-four, and 11-7-2 overall. Their last NCAA trip was in 1996 in a storied history that includes three titles from 1988-94, led by Doug Weight, Jim Dowd and Brian Rolston.

No. 6 -- The Mercyhurst Lakers are 7-2-2 in Atlantic Hockey, tied for second in the league as Rick Gotkin's rebuilding effort the past two years is paying off. Their last tournament appearance was 2005.

No. 5 -- The Providence Friars, under first-year coach and last year's Coach of the Year Nate Leaman, are 6-4-0 in Hockey East and knocking on the door of the league's top tier. "Great goaltending and very good specialty teams," Leaman said about the keys. "We have had a lot of players in roles they have never played previously, and they have done well."

No. 4 -- The Colgate Raiders, under Don Vaughn, are 6-2-0, good for second place behind Cornell in the ECACHL, and 11-4-2 overall. Their last tournament appearance was 2005; they lost the 1990 championship game.

No. 3 -- The Michigan Tech Huskies, under first-year coach Mel Pearson, have already equaled the last two seasons in total wins with nine. Ranked No. 12 of the 12 WCHA teams in the preseason poll, they are ahead of Wisconsin and just a point behind North Dakota in the WCHA standings. "Putting the past in the past," Pearson told NHL.com a few weeks back about the major makeover dynamics. "We couldn't change the past, but we have something to say about the future of Michigan Tech hockey."

No. 2 -- The Massachusetts-Lowell River Hawks, under first-year coach Norm Bazin, are 7-4-0 in Hockey East -- good for No. 4 in the prestigious league after a No. 9 preseason ranking among the 10 teams -- and 10-5-0 overall. "A couple of contributing factors," Bazin said, "have been playing good team defense coupled with being able to get valuable points on the road. We feel our team has taken steps every week towards getting better. Our major goal this season is to continue to develop our identity."

No. 1 -- Ohio State's strong first half (see main story)
Of the 10 first-half surprise teams, nobody comes close to Ohio State as the NCAA's "second" season gets under way next week.

If the Buckeyes come close to replicating their first-half performance, NHL alums like Ryan Kesler, David Steckel, and RJ Umberger will be texting second-year coach Mark Osiecki with congrats for a CCHA championship and the seventh NCAA Tournament appearance in program history.

With 13 overall wins (13-4-1), one behind Minnesota and tied with defending national champion Minnesota-Duluth, along with a five-point bulge atop the league standings at 10-3-1, the Buckeyes are on a roll that includes just two losses since Oct. 21, a sweep of archrival Michigan, and a split with Notre Dame and Michigan State.

All of this is good for a No. 4 national ranking.

"We have 13 new players, 12 freshmen and a transfer," said Osiecki, who assisted Mike Eaves at Wisconsin before coming to Columbus. "Eighteen players are no longer here from when we first came in, either graduating or leaving the program. So it's been interesting to see how the whole thing has transformed."

While transformation is a daily process for the Buckeye roster, there is no shortage of it in Osiecki's resume.

He played on the 1990 Badgers title team and assisted Eaves when Wisconsin won it all in 2006 before losing the 2010 final.

"We're certainly a lot further along than where we thought we'd be and obviously glad about it, but it's all about where we need to go and what we need to do," Osiecki told NHL.com this week. "We need to keep the young guys from thinking too much. While we do talk about the successes, we try not to get too high and caught up in it. You want to embrace it because it's the level you want your program to be.
 
"It was like that at Wisconsin; you walked with a little swagger and enjoyed the success."

The four seniors will manage the swagger-and-success factor.

"The captains, Sean Duddy and Cory Schneider, have really done the job," Osiecki said. "They've taught the young kids all about Ohio State, from school to the social aspects and how we want to carry ourselves. They are extremely bright young men and do everything the right way -- great examples of how we want to grow the culture here. We all want to put a stamp on the way we want the program to be."

A pair of seniors -- Danny Dries, second on the team in scoring, and Cal Heeter between the pipes -- complete the leadership piece.

"We play on our toes because we have great goaltending," Osiecki said. "Brady Hjelle, a transfer behind Cal Heeter has done a great job as well. Cal bought into what it takes to be a high-level athlete at the hockey level."

Add the defense and what the freshmen bring to the table, and Ohio State is poised for continued second-half momentum.

"It's a solid team defense with depth and no so-called superstars," Osiecki said about his blue line led by Duddy, Devon Krogh, and Curtis Gedig, who have also chipped in with 28 combined points. "The younger guys on defense are still adjusting to the speed of the game."

NHL.com's Top 10

1. Minnesota-Duluth 12-3-3
2. Minnesota 14-5-1
3. Boston College 12-6-0
4. Ohio State 13-4-1
5. Notre Dame 11-6-3
6. Merrimack 10-3-2
7. Colorado College 11-5-0
8. Boston University 10-5-1
9. Western Michigan 9-4-5
10. Union 9-3-5
Meanwhile, the younger guys up front are creating their own tempo.

"With 12 freshmen," Osiecki said, "we'll need to lean on them. Brian Dzingel is an offensive and gifted player and very dynamic. Darik Angeli plays like a pro player -- big body who skates well and goes to the net hard. Then you have Matty Johnson and Max McCormick, who have played well."

Overall, Osiecki said, "No one cares who gets the credit."

What are the keys to January and February as a springboard to what March and maybe April brings?

"Consistency is the focus, and we see that in practice when the inconsistencies creep in; probably youth showing up," Osiecki said. "We need to shed that. Getting to the 'Joe' for the CCHA playoffs is what we're striving for; those experiences help a young group. And, of course, the NCAA tournament.
 
"That's how you become a Michigan or a Wisconsin."
Quote of the Day

It's really exciting. I'm pretty sure that when I play my first game I'm going to be emotional. To be back on the ice playing a game, being in game situations, with all the routines and rituals I do before games and during the game, I feel like I'm going to be emotional. I'm going to be really happy.

— Montreal Canadiens forward Tim Bozon on playing for the first time since his life-threaning illness