After nearly a year of silence, Ohio is so close to playing hockey yet again.
The Bobcats haven’t faced off against an opponent since losing to Illinois in the first match of the 2020 Central States Collegiate Hockey League back in March. Less than a week after that match, the tournament was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns.
Ohio finished its season 24-9-4 overall, an impressive record under first year head coach Cole Bell.
Bell hoped to be playing matches again on time in the fall, but the pandemic was still widespread in the U.S. at the time, and Ohio delayed the start of its season.
Now, the Bobcats are participating in scrimmages again, and the 2021 regular season is scheduled to begin Feb. 2 with a visit from Liberty in Bird Arena. Some things have changed since the 2019-20 season, so here’s what to expect from Ohio this year:
Who will the Bobcats miss?
As things always are with collegiate sports, Ohio lost some talented seniors to graduation last summer.
Goaltender Jimmy Thomas is one name Ohio will be without this year. Thomas was a star for the Bobcats, and he had a seven-match win streak and a 91% save percentage last season.
Jacob Houston, Tyler Harkins and Gianni Evangelisti, last season’s American Collegiate Hockey Association’s Player of the Year, have also graduated. They were a big reason why the Bobcats led the division in goals scored last year.
All three of them were in the top five in points scored in the Central States division last year, giving Ohio a dominant scoring offense. Evangelisti led the team with 72 points.
While these players and others will be missed by the Bobcats, the team is not without suitable replacements to step up in 2021.
New leaders will be aided by young stars
Kyle Craddick and Shawn Baird are this year’s captains, and they are more than capable of leading the team to a similar or better position it was in last year.
Craddick leads the Bobcats in returning scorers with 33 points last year. Not too far behind him are Ryan Higgins (29 points last season) and J.T. Schimizzi (27 points). Higgins is a junior, and Schimizzi is a sophomore, while Craddick is senior, giving him an edge in experience over other offensive stars.
Baird, also a senior, will be expected to lead the defense this season. Like Craddick, he also has a solid core of younger players around him. Sam Turner, Scott Bagby and Blake Rossi have all proven themselves to be talented defenders and could be what Ohio needs in order to step up its defensive game.
It’s on the defense
While the Bobcats boasted a leading offense last season, their defense wasn’t quite on the same level.
Ohio’s defense was by no means bad and had plenty of talent on its own, but its 95 goals allowed was the second most in the Central States division (which, for the record, was much better than division rival Robert Morris’s 146 goals allowed).
Losing talents like Houston and Thomas won’t help Ohio, but those losses are outnumbered by returnees capable of stepping up. Along with Baird and the younger talents, Timmy Thurnau, a senior and familiar face for the Bobcats, also returns to the defense.
If you were concerned about losing a goaltender like Thomas, you can rest those fears too.
Goaltender position in good hands
Thomas was something special, and Ohio was fortunate to have him as a regular starter for four years.
However, that does not mean the Bobcats will be lacking at the goaltending position this season. Quite the opposite, actually. Mason Koster and Jackson Chilberg are expected to be Thomas’s replacement in 2021, and both of them have some experience going into the season.
Chilberg played only one game last season, but when he did, he played for a full 60 minutes against Slippery Rock in November, shutting out The Rock with 22 saves in just his third collegiate start.
Koster may have a 1-3 record at goaltender, but his resume is boosted by an 86.9% save percentage. He also had 47 saves in a match against Lindenwood, which had the best record in the Central States division last year.
Along with Chilberg and Koster, two freshmen goalkeepers will have time to learn from the veterans. Max Karlenzig and Matt Server are both goaltenders who will be in their first season with the Bobcats.
Must stay disciplined
The Bobcats are a close family, so the bond they have for each other will often show up in the matches.
Unfortunately, this sometimes means the players’ emotions can get the best of them, and that can result in penalties that give their opponents an advantage. Ohio led the Central States division in penalty infraction minutes last season with 749 minutes. That’s almost 100 minutes more than Robert Morris’s 655, which was the second most in the division last year.
In a loss to Calvin last season, three Bobcats were sent to the locker room after fights broke out in Bird Arena in the second period.
The feisty attitude Ohio has toward opponents is a double-edged sword. That toughness can lead to great results from the team, but too many emotions can be a setback.
Ohio was a good team last year, and it was only Bell’s first year at the helm.
Now that Bell has more experience coaching at Bird Arena and has a stronger connection as head coach with his players, it’s possible that this can result in a great team chemistry that will lead the Bobcats to even farther places than they saw last year.
Of course, everyone should also hope the season can be completed this time around.