Updated Fri, Feb 21, 2014 3:44 pm
As they hoarded together in the near end of Bird Arena with their sticks raised skyward, the Ohio Bobcats clapped their sticks to the ice in unison to salute their fans after their final regular season game. The game a week ago saw Ohio walk away from their salute and into the locker room with a convincing victory, but the team recognized there was little time for celebration. In just one week, the Bobcats’ post-season would begin with the Central States Collegiate Hockey League Tournament in Wentzville, Mo.
Now that week is upon us, and Ohio’s play all year has earned a first round bye for the CSCHL Tournament. While an automatic start in the semifinals is nice, it hardly guarantees anything in the toughest league in Division-I club hockey. As always, the Bobcats will have their work cut out for them when they face-off against familiar foes to defend their CSCHL Title from last season.
Illinois Fighting Illini
The Illini surprised the Bobcats on more than one occasion, splitting the season series 2-2. Other than a massive 8-1 win that Ohio earned in Illinois’ barn in the first meeting of the season series, every game between the two were hard fought contests and very entertaining hockey.
Illinois plays a physical brand of hockey to make up for their lack of high-end offensive skill that suckered Ohio into taking 59 total penalty minutes in four games. Ohio is not unique when it becomes much less effective when trying to kill five or more penalties a game, but many of its best offensive players, like freshman Pat Spellacy, become significantly less productive when playing frustrated.
Missing any truly elite offensive threats, the Illini rely heavily on an offense by committee and the play of goalie Nick Clarke, who is a serviceable netminder. Jon Olen, the team’s third highest scorer, developed a knack for knocking down the ‘Cats as he scored four goals against Ohio this year.
The Illini were also the only team this season to defeat the Bobcats when Ohio led after two periods. Though they seemed to have Bobcats under their thumb at several times over the course of the season, the Illini did have a tough time against Lindenwood, their first round opponent in this tournament.
If the Bobcats can stay away from the sin bin and avoid the mental mistakes they made many times against the Illini this season, Illinois should not be a great concern. If not, well, Illinois has proven that they are a team more than capable of winning if its opponent is not at the top its game.
After another long season, Indiana deserves its spot as the lowest seed in the CSCHL Tournament. The Hoosiers don’t have much going for them at any position, especially in goal. The team played its way to a league-worst -79 goal differential, 67 goals worse than the next lowest team, Lindenwood.
Still, Indiana plays a gutsy game as all the players show a willingness to sacrifice their body to block shots and uses an aggressive forecheck to attack opposing defenses. All their hard work only gets them so far, unfortunately. Being overpowered at just about every position catches up with them in every game against CSCHL opponents, and the workload becomes too great for their less than stellar goaltenders.
Indiana’s only in-league win this season was back on Nov. 12, when it squeezed out a 2-1 victory of Illinois. Aside from that game back in the fall, the goals against piled up in match-ups against quality opponents.
The only way the Hoosiers can meet the Bobcats in this tournament would be in the final, but that would require two earth-shattering upsets over Iowa State and Robert Morris. If Indiana does manage that and meets Ohio on Sunday, the Bobcats may not even stand a chance, because clearly the hand of a higher being has decided to play a role in the Hoosiers’ sudden turnaround.
Iowa State Cyclones
The Cyclones challenge Ohio as the most complete team in the CSCHL. Top-to-bottom, Iowa State is loaded with talent that can contribute to success in big game situations. Ohio went 2-1-1 against Iowa State in the regular season, and the two rivals already know they will meet in their first games of the ACHA National Tournament in March.
Familiarity is the key phrase when it comes to these two teams, as they met in the CSCHL Tournament Final and ACHA National Tournament last season, too, in addition to their four heated battles this season. The ‘Cats came out on top in both of those meetings, so know that the Cyclones will be far more interested in a twisted sequel than a scene-for-scene remake.
Even though Iowa State boasts a balanced offense and a diverse defense corps that includes big bodied stay-at-home defenders that play alongside speedy and agile blue liners like Finnish brothers Antti and Eero Helanto, the Cyclones greatest strength lies in goal.
Jonathan Cooper was one of two goalies selected to represent the United States at the World University games in Italy this past winter, and has been a thorn in Ohio’s side every time they have faced each other the past two years. Cooper knows how to get into his opponents’ heads not only with his stonewall performances in the crease, but also with his colorful remarks that come from behind his mask and are directed at whoever dares shoot the puck near his net. The Bobcats have solved him before, but it has rarely been easy.
While the Cyclones possess an advantage in goal, Ohio’s offense has a little more high-end talent, well. If the two clubs meet in the second round of the CSCHL Tournament, the hatred that’s been brewing between them over the past two years and the elevated stage make it bound to be another game for the ages.
The hosts of this year’s league tournament and one of the more historic programs in club hockey, Lindenwood is actually in a bit of a down year. At 12-18-2, it’s the first time the Lions have finished the regular season under .500 in over a decade. Nonetheless, Lindenwood’s strong schedule helped them earn a bid in the ACHA National Tournament despite the losing record.
The Lions don’t have many outstanding puck-moving defensemen, and their most skilled offensive players are all a bit undersized, which does not match up well with the size of the Bobcats’ top defensemen, J.C. Gulch, Duncan Green, and Tyler Benson. Forward Steve Brancheau did give Ohio a hard time in their series at Bird Arena, however, demonstrating a complete offensive skill set. Brancheau finished tied for the third most points on Lindenwood’s roster.
Despite an unimposing 2-10-1 record, 3.87 goals against average and .870 save percentage, Lindenwood goalie Linus Åhgren could be its secret weapon. The Swedish born and raised Åhgren is the most athletic and one of the most technically solid netminders in the league. He has demonstrated lightning quick reflexes and excellent low net coverage, indicative of most Scandinavian-trained goalies today. If not for playing behind a porous defense, Åhgren would be much more threatening to opponents and run away with the Lions’ starting job.
Lindenwood was winless against Ohio in their three games this season, and was outscored 18-10. If the Bobcats are at any point challenged by the Lions during any point of this tournament, don’t expect Lindenwood’s home ice advantage to play any major role in the outcome. Ohio should be able to earn the victory, unless Åhgren puts on an absolute clinic.
Robert Morris Eagles
The Eagles hold the top seed throughout the entire tournament and a first round bye as a result. The only way Ohio can meet up with Robert Morris in Missouri this weekend is if the two squads meet in the finals on Sunday.
While the Eagles cruised through a majority of the regular season to a 28-6-2 record, the Bobcats had their number whenever they would play each other. Robert Morris was 1-2-1 against Ohio this season, including a 7-2 drubbing at the hands of the Bobcats at Bird the first time the teams met.
Still, the Eagles have two of the most dynamic offensive players in the CSCHL in seniors Chris Cimoch and Gehrett Sargis. Between the duo, Cimoch has the finisher’s touch while Sargis plays the primary role of playmaker. The two combined for a total of 99 points during the season, a feat no two players on Ohio’s team can boast. Sargis also missed a few games this winter while he represented the United States at the World University games in Italy.
The Ohio blue line will be the key if the Bobcats want to defeat the Eagles for the fourth time this year. If it can limit the offensive opportunities of Cimoch, Sargis, and Robert Morris’ other strong offensive talents, the game becomes Ohio’s to lose. Unfortunately for Sheridan and the Bobcats, that’s easier said than done.
Five of the six teams in the league qualified for the 20-team national tournament. If the Bobcats want to enter nationals in March with the satisfaction of knowing they were the best of those six squads, they certainly have their work cut out for them. Ohio must be a favorite heading into the competition, especially with how well they handled the top seed Robert Morris in the regular season, but with competition this stiff in a sport as unpredictable as hockey, it will still take a perfect weekend from Ohio if it wants to be crowned CSCHL Champions again.
The Bobcats will play their first game of the tournament on Saturday, and will face either the winner of (3) Iowa State vs. (6) Indiana or (4) Illinois vs. (5) Lindenwood. The lowest seed will go to Robert Morris while the higher seed will play Ohio in the next round. Both opening round games will be played on Friday night.