December 7, 2006 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Improvement Slow For Young Buckeyes

by Courtney Lewis/CHN Reporter

Last season, Ohio State struggled to put the puck in the net. The Buckeyes have been scoring goals this season. The problem is, so have their opponents.

With a bunch of veteran blueliners returning, taking care of its own end was expected to be Ohio State's strength this season. Surprisingly, the team has averaged 3.56 goals allowed per game, which ranks 10th in the CCHA, and it's 5-8-3.

Yet with renewed focus on team defense and attention to detail, the Buckeyes think they've turned the corner, and they're 3-2-2 in their last seven games.

Ohio State has three senior defenseman and three juniors, with just one freshman.

"It was kind of odd, because we had upperclassmen trying to find their game," coach John Markell said. "It was something that we tried to adapt to. We knew that there was light at the end of the tunnel. We knew we weren't going to maintain that level; we were going to get better."

Ohio State gave up 24 goals through its first six contests, starting off 2-4, including four straight losses.

"Our defensemen at the start of the season weren't playing the way they could," Markell said. "And there were a couple reasons. With a new goalie back there, a young kid, they maybe were not in sync with him the way they were with a guy like Dave Caruso. And we were also making mistakes in front of them, and the forwards were not doing a good job of getting in position for passes."

The Buckeyes lost Caruso to graduation, and when would-be junior Ian Keserich departed over the summer, it left them with two freshmen goaltenders. Joseph Palmer is a highly-touted product of the U.S. National Team Development Program who has gotten most of the starts. Nick Filion, who's just 17, planned on playing another season of junior hockey until Keserich's departure opened a roster spot.

Both have had a rocky start. Palmer is 5-6-2 in 13 games with an .884 save percentage and a 3.01 GAA, and Filion has played in five games and is still looking for a win.

But senior defenseman Sean Collins said the netminders have not been solely to blame.

"It definitely had a lot to do with how the team was playing in front of the goalies," Collins, the team captain, said. "But it was not always the defensemen. Sometimes it was a defenseman's fault, sometimes a forward's fault. Normally, we've always taken pride in our team defense, not just our defensive corps. When we're playing good team D, our forwards are blocking shots, getting back, and our defensemen are making good plays in the D zone."

Being under .500 through the first two months of the season was not the kind of start the Buckeyes wanted, especially since they're coming off a disappointing 2005-06 campaign when they finished 10th in the CCHA. It's extra tough for the upperclassmen, who got used to being in the NCAAs.

"Overall, it's been pretty frustrating to tell the truth," Collins said. "We play one game, and we think we have stuff figured out, and we have a lot of confidence going into the next week, and then we have a bad game on Friday. Basically it has been inconsistency. It's been tough trying to establish our identity. Now after two months, especially after last week, we've started to find that identity. And I think we have it figured out now."

A low point defensively may have been the first game of their Western Michigan home series on Thursday, Nov. 9, when the Buckeyes gave up three goals in both the second and third periods and lost 8-5 after leading in the first. But it was also a turning point.

Instead of heading home, they watched the game tape afterwards. They came back out the next night and played to a 2-2 tie.

"We watched the entire game, all the things we did well and did poorly," Collins said. "The more you see yourself on tape doing it, the easier it is to focus on improving. We noticed things we were doing wrong. And just from Thursday night to Friday's game, we noticed a big difference in our team D.

"We definitely feel we've turned things around. We're really confident in our team defense 5-on-5."

The Buckeyes swept Bowling Green the next weekend. They went 0-1-1 in the Rensselaer Holiday Tournament Nov. 24-25, though Collins said they played well 5-on-5. Last week, Ohio State held Michigan State to one shot in the first period on Friday night before going on to lose 4-1. The Buckeyes bounced back with a solid 4-1 win on Saturday.

Markell said the blueliners have been moving better as a unit in their own end. He also noted that the team changed some of its systems this season to try to create more scoring, and that backfired. So the squad has gone back to a more defensive mindset while still managing to produce offensively. A pair of defensemen lead Ohio State in scoring — Collins has five goals and 10 assists and junior Jason DeSantis has a goal and 14 helpers — and numerous players are contributing.

Collins said the Buckeyes have tried to make sure they're doing all the little things, and the defensemen are also trying to really communicate well with the goaltender. Both Collins and Markell said going from playing with an experienced goalie to a having a freshman back there every night has meant the defensemen have had to make a few adjustments.

"We don't have a veteran to go in and calm things down," Markell said. "And you're not sure how they're going to react from game to game because they are freshmen. If you have a freshman defender, a freshman forward who's not used to the game, you put him on the bench. But when you have two freshmen (goalies) it can be unsettling.

"But it's very, very important that the goaltender has a calming effect on the D, and the defensemen have a calming effect on the forwards and there on out."

He said Palmer did have that calming effect last Saturday in East Lansing. Palmer made 39 saves in the 4-1 win and on Monday was named CCHA Goaltender of the Week. The 18-year-old native of Utica, N.Y. was yanked in the loss to Western Michigan, but he has started six of the seven games since then, going 3-2-1.

"He's learning, and he continues to grow," Markell said. "He had a good game against MSU, and he wants to back it up against Miami (this weekend). Has he had some rough outings? Yes. He's also had some good outings, and he wants to back that up and be a consistent high-quality performer. Which he can be. We knew it was in there. It's coming out."

Palmer was not available for comment; Markell has shielded him from the media for most of the season, saying he wants him to focus on his game.

Collins said he thinks the two young goalies have handled the pressure pretty well and have both kept an even keel despite the up-and-down start to their careers.

"We knew there were going to be growing pains; we knew it was going to be a challenge," Markell said. "Even though we have a veteran team in front, the goalie has to play well no matter what. Any freshman — a forward, a defenseman, whatever — who has to get quickly acclimated, what makes them successful is once the game slows down for them. And it's starting to slow down for (Palmer and Filion). There will be periods where they blank out — even veterans blank out sometimes — but hopefully they're feeling more comfortable at this level. What's good is that they're both very competitive."

Despite the frustrating start to the season, Ohio State is 5-5-2 in CCHA play and currently fourth in the league standings. Now, the Buckeyes are looking to put together a consistent stretch. They've got two games left before the holiday break, and they'll be tested — they play a home-and-home series with league-leading Miami this weekend.

"First and foremost, we want to do well in the league," Markell said. "And we're hanging in there. We lost some games, but other teams have too. Our job is to end up in the top four in the end.

"We knew we were going to improve, and the challenge is to beat these good teams like Miami."

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