Ohio will need veterans, fourth-liners alike to step up and close out final three home series.
One of the staples of the Ohio hockey team has been its ability to wear teams down with its depth — with a heavily skilled rotation of forwards, defenders and goalies that never seem to give the opponent a break.
And while a few injuries tested that depth earlier this season, the biggest test lies ahead, as the team is forced to play its final three weekends of the regular season without three star players and its head coach.
The No. 5 Bobcats enter the upcoming series at No. 11 Liberty with a 22-4-2 record and the top spot in the Central States Collegiate Hockey League. It will be Ohio’s last weekend of the regular season it will play with forwards Michael Harris and Joe Breslin, defenseman Tyler Benson, and head coach Sean Hogan, who leave the following week to participate in Team USA’s bid for the gold medal at the 2015 World University Games.
The schedule that Ohio closes out the season with is no walk in the park. The Bobcats will face off against No. 8 Robert Morris, No. 3 Oklahoma, and No. 13 Illinois in an effort to close out the season with the division in hand.
“It’ll be all about just sticking to our game plan,” Hogan said. “All of our guys play in all types of situations, and we can rely on all of them. So, not a lot should change. We’re playing a lot of good teams, so we just need to make sure we get the job done.”
Current assistants Kyle Schussler and David Nies will step into Hogan’s role and act as associate head coaches in Hogan’s absence.
Replacing the forwards is a bit more daunting of a task on the surface, but a manageable one. Breslin and Harris are the top two scorers on the team, combining for 61 points on 31 goals this season. Just because the scoring wealth has been distributed more evenly behind them, however, doesn’t mean that there’s any less potential.
Nathan De La Torre and Patrick Spellacy have each racked up double digit goal totals for the season, while Liam Geither has slowly moved into third on the team in total points thanks to 15 assists.
“We probably have one of the deepest teams in the ACHA,” De La Torre said. “Team leadership is definitely crucial. We’re still striving for the same goal, and that’s sticking to our systems and playing as a team.”
While it’s important to keep the offense functioning on a high level, it’s important not to ignore the missing piece in the country’s best defense. Benson’s been a key component in a defense that has given up fewer goals (36 in 28 games) than any team in the ACHA. However, the Bobcats do retain some depth at defenseman as well.
Team captain Mike Kretz (2 points, 15 assists) will provide not only well-above average defense in Benson’s absence, but also important senior leadership as the team fights through its final three weeks. Guys like Paul Sergi and Tyler Pecka also provide a sturdy force on the defensive end.
Ohio will be assisted by the fact that its three weekends without the four Team USAers are all home series, and no team in the country has been stronger at home than the Bobcats. Ohio is 17-0-0 at home this season, and outscoring its opponents at an 89-13 clip, including an astonishing 33-1 in the third period.
While it’s impossible not to think about who will need to step up where in the coming weeks, for now, Ohio’s thinking simply about its next challenge; a series on the road against a strong Liberty team, and the Team USAers’ last chance to win with the Bobcats before the postseason.
“I have full faith in these guys not to skip a beat the rest of the season,” Harris said. “Right now, the guys that are leaving are just thinking about going out with a sweep. That’s all you can ask for.”