Friday, January 7, 2011

Since Last Time: Ohio

Clutch goaltending from Teddy Hume and some great penalty killing in a physical game helped lead to this celebration following Steve Thurston's OT winner with one second left. The Saturday win allowed PSU to battle back and earn a split at Bird Arena last season.

The spring semester is here, which means plenty of opposite-site rematches against teams with whom the Icers have already tangled. Rather than present another primer on these opponents as throughout the fall semester, I'll take a slightly different angle - updating what these teams have done since playing Penn State. This may crash and burn once I hit teams that don't get regular coverage from their student newspapers, but it still beats me telling you for a second time that Ohio goalie Blake MacNicol transferred from Alabama-Huntsville. Oh wait, I just did.

Last time: O-H, They Go (10/22/2010) // Weekend Observations: Ohio (10/24/2010)

So how have the No. 4 Bobcats been since then? Pretty well actually - OU's last regulation loss was in the Friday game against the Icers. First up was a down Iowa State team in Ames. The No. 14 Cyclones are in legitimate danger of missing the ACHA national tournament for the first time ever (probably, educated guess on my part) and the Bobcats treated them accordingly in a revenge series, winning 4-1 and 5-1.
A veteran Ohio (6-3-1, 2-0 CSCHL) team relied on a tenacious forecheck to take advantage of the inexperienced Cyclone defenders. The [then] No. 6 Bobcats wore down Iowa State (5-9-0, 1-3 CSCHL) with sustained physical pressure, and the Cyclones broke in the final stanza of each contest.

"When you wear them down then those opportunities arrive late in the game, and I thought we did a good job capitalizing," Ohio head coach Dan Morris said. "You can see with three third-period goals Friday and two third-period goals Saturday."

It was a pair of seniors who led the way for the Bobcats Saturday as Billy Hemann and Brett Molnar combined for two power-play goals and five points. The goal was Molnar's first since the season-opener against Goderich Oct. 1.
Ohio next returned home to face No. 6 Arizona State and lost 5-4 in a shootout Friday before winning 3-2 Saturday. The power play was vital to the 1-0-1 weekend.
During the weekend, six of the Bobcats' seven goals came on the man advantage, a statistic head coach Dan Morris finds positive but also troubling.

"It's good and it's bad. We want to win the five-on-five battles ... We got beat this weekend on even-strength goals." Morris said. "That's an area of concern."
The next four games were against ACHA Division 2 Miami and Ohio State, all Ohio wins by a combined 25-8. Yawn. Next.

The Bobcats participated in the Wheeling Mountaineer Invitational over Thanksgiving weekend and came away with the tournament title on the strength of a 6-4 win over host West Virginia powered by the usual suspects - four assists from Tyler Pilmore, two goals each from Michael Schultz and Brett Agnew - the guy who torched the Icers for three power play goals in that 6-3 loss on October 23rd.  A pair of wins at No. 13 Illinois followed, and while the Illini, like ISU, are a little down this year, collecting Ws on the Big Pond is never easy. Especially when you have to drop 'em every minute and a half or so.

I had the chance to attend Ohio's last game, a decisive 7-3 result against No. 20 Kent State December 11th (following a tight 2-1 win the night before). In particular, I felt like the Bobcats special teams dominated the penalty-riddled game, particular OU forwards Hemann, Alex DiMassa and Jared Fuhs on the penalty kill - the ability of Penn State to break through this group with a sort-of-struggling power play might be the key to these two games. You might look at the box score, see that KSU had three on the power play, and think I'm an idiot, but I only see one that wasn't in garbage time, and that was with the Flashes up two men. I actually think the box score's wrong about the second PPG too - I only see matching roughing minors in effect for that one.

Also, look out for defenseman Jake Holzemer on the Ohio power play - he likes to sneak down low fishing for a juicy rebound. It paid off with the game's first goal, but he also got burned at least once.

When you go to Athens, you always have to account for a couple different things.
  1. Bird Arena. The place defines "quirky, old school hockey barn." The surface is ten feet short of the usual 200, with most of that extra distance taken out of the neutral zone. The benches are on opposite sides as a result, giving the whole setup a high school football feel to it, but one that has an effect on the game itself - with a quick trip from O to D, the importance of transitional play is always an emphasis. As is physicality on the small ice.  
  2. The fans. Fan involvement can be kind of hit-and-miss in the ACHA, but OU is one of the places with engaged spectators who don't have a kid on the team, including a student cheering section called Gang Green. One of them runs a lap around the ice with a flag after every Bobcat goal, although the excitement from the goal wears off, the "Hey! You suck!" chant concludes, and play gets back underway long before he's actually finished. Always kind of awkward.
Would you pay $18 to sit with these people all season long?

As tough of a venue as Bird Arena can be, the Icers are a team without much of a margin for error at this point, in terms of making the ACHA national championship tournament. PSU sits in a tie for tenth in the polls and probably needs to stick in the top 12 to go to Delaware in March. What does that mean in terms of this weekend? In my opinion, a split is needed. The team simply can't afford another Rhode Island-like disaster right now, and a split maintains the status quo at worst, and maybe even helps a little - OU is No. 4 after all. An Icers sweep (which has happened exactly once at Bird since Party of Five was on the air) would obviously be phenomenal and give some protection against slipping versus URI or Delaware over the next several weeks.

Outside Reading

Steve Penstone, in VFTB, reiterates a lot of what I just said. Well, okay, he was first, I'm reiterating him. He also has clutch interviews with Marek Polidor and Josh Hand, which I obviously don't have. They get into things like the Icers' road-heavy January schedule (seven of eight games) and the fact that they'll be playing on three different sized surfaces this month.

I'm happy to report that The Athens Post's sports blog has stepped it up since earlier in the week and offers this effort. A little TYT 24/7 for you: when I watch a game, the first thing I do is jot down the line combos (for TYT, not all the time, that would be pretty lame of me). Price of trying to do this from four hours away. I felt like a big wheel last week when they were already up on the live stats before the WUG team-Vermont game. So Mr. Logan's efforts in that area are appreciated, even if they're only "projected lines."

Here's their pre-series story, which contains this quote from Morris.
"There is always added intensity when we play Penn State. The rivalry dictates it should be that way. They're coming into our barn desperate for a win, so we've got to be prepared for that."
They're important games, no doubt. Rivalry games. Desperate? I wouldn't take it that far. It maybe gets "desperate" if we lose, but as of now, it's just a matter of knowing the situation and knowing what has to be done to reach the finish line.

A feature on MacNicol, who transferred from NCAA Division I Alabama-Huntsville (boom, got it in again), is also part of The Post's hockey coverage this week.  

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