Ice hockey: Coach’s Show and second half preview

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As uncommon as the weather has been in Southeast Ohio this season, it may escape some minds that we’re fully entrenched in the winter months.  But the calendar doesn’t lie. 

It’s flipped away the fall, the holiday season, and, soon, to a new year.  A year that has a tough act to follow, given what 2011 meant for athletics around Athens.

What that turn of the calendar means for Ohio Hockey is unfinished business.  As the snow inevitably blankets Ohio’s campus, the dark skies of Athens give way to bright Bird Arena lights that have been so friendly to the Green and White this season.  Opponents have called the Bobcats’ home both an exciting and menacing atmosphere.  So far, Ohio’s home ice has served its purpose. 

Eight puck drops; eight victorious tapping of the sticks.

Now, mere days remain before taping up those sticks once again to stare across the ice at league foe Illinois.  It will be another test against Ohio’s perfect home record. 

Although the two always meet as opponents, they share a common goal in their quest to catch Lindenwood atop the Central States Collegiate Hockey League.  The Lions currently sit a single point above Ohio for the league’s top spot.  The Fighting Illini are six points behind the Bobcats in third.

It’s a storied tradition between the two familiar foes, with the nation’s number one ranking at stake in past meetings.  As the ninth-ranked team in the country, Illinois has more than enough in its arsenal for a heavyweight bout. 

That’s only the cap on a winter slate crammed with pivotal matchups.  Six squads, five of which are ranked in the top 15, still have a date with the ‘Cats in the regular season.  In all, eight league games remain as Ohio tries to capture its second CSCHL regular season title in three years. 

The opening weekend of winter hockey in Athens is followed by a pair of road trips for Ohio.  The “away” status has been an unwelcome one for the ‘Cats so far as all seven losses have come away from Bird Arena.  Those losses have not come to slim competition; five of them have come at the hands of the nation’s top three squads (Penn State, Delaware, Arizona State). 

It’s a key burden to shed for the ‘Cats, who travel to Chicago to battle #11 Robert Morris followed by a showdown with #4 Lindenwood.  The Eagles, then ranked #13 in the country, surprised the ‘Cats by dealing third-ranked Ohio a 3-1 loss late last season.  It would mark the last Ohio loss before it was ousted from the ACHA Final Four. 

Lindenwood has established itself as arguably the most consistent program of the last half-decade.  The Lions have reached the ACHA National Championship each of the last four years, taking away two titles in that stretch.  The top-ranked Lions bested Ohio in their two regular season meetings last season.  However, Ohio got revenge at the most opportune time, knocking off the heavyweight to capture the 2010-2011 CSCHL Tournament title. 

The following opponent does little to lighten the competitive burden.  The #1 Nittany Icers of Penn State invade Athens on Jan. 27 for what will be the last ever meeting between the two storied rivals.  A bittersweet end as Penn State will make the jump to the NCAA Division I level for 2012-2013. 

Ohio then wraps its regular season home slate with the second meeting between in-state opponent Kent State.  The ‘Cats took both meetings with the Golden Flashes in Kent, outscoring their hosts 15-2. 

The ‘Cats then have the fortune of hosting this year’s CSCHL Tournament beginning Feb. 17.  The status of reigning conference champion is an added motivation for a team that has looked so comfortable on its home ice. 

One final test will follow in the form of #15 Adrian College as Ohio prepares for the ACHA National Tournament.  After reaching the semifinals last season, the ‘Cats could feel right at home as this year’s tournament will be held just 200 miles north at the Hoover Arena in Strongsville, OH.  

As expected, Ohio will need a complete effort night after night to weather the meat grinder of a schedule.  THe road to this point hasn't been perfect, but the 'Cats have put themselves in the right position to make a league push. A combination of healing injuries, seasoned veterans and ample experience already under younger skaters' belts will make an Ohio matchup one to circle for any opponent.

Justin Sampson is the radio broadcaster for Ohio club hockey on Follow on Twitter @BobcatsHockey