Buckeyes find strength in freshman numbers

"... and a little child shall lead them."
-- Isaiah 11:6

With a gaggle of seniors from last season's CCHA playoff championship team departed, Ohio State hockey fans might have thought divine intervention would be necessary for the Buckeyes to reach the previous year's heights. After all, coach John Markell needed to rebuild with members of his 11-man freshman class.

You can win with freshmen in the lineup, but you're not expected to when rookies make up more than half of it.

That's the case in Columbus, however. Ohio State, fresh off an impressive sweep of Northern Michigan at Value City Arena, leads the nation with nine victories and is 9-1-0 in its last 10 games. The Buckeyes look for wins No. 10 and 11 this weekend at Nebraska-Omaha.

Naturally, the freshmen have done more than play supporting roles during the Bucks' six-week run.

"With 10, 11 of us on the roster, we have to do it," said first-year forward Tom Fritsche, OSU's leading scorer with 15 points. "We're half the team."

Well, almost half. Against the Wildcats, the Buckeyes had eight freshmen on the ice each night, and each night they earned their keep. On Saturday, forward Dominic Maiani scored a key insurance goal midway through the third period of OSU's 2-0 victory. In Sunday's series finale, Sam Campbell scored two goals and Ian Keserich stopped 31 shots in a 5-1 win.

"Our confidence is high, but we know at any time, anyone can beat us," said Fritsche, a Parma, Ohio, native whose brother, Dan, was a second-round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2003 and played 19 games in the NHL last season. "The first weekend, we lost two games. After that, we settled down and started winning."

Not only are the rookies winning, but they're contributing. To wit: Maiani, Fritsche's linemate, is the Buckeyes' second-leading scorer with 14 points. The other member of the Fritsche line, John Dingle, has three goals in nine games. Offensive-minded defenseman Kyle Hood, who scored 66 points for the Cowichan Valley Capitals of the British Columbia Hockey League last season, has 1-5-6 in 10 games. Defenseman Jason DeSantis, meanwhile, is tied for second on the team with a +6 plus-minus rating.

According to Fritsche, being part of a large freshman class has made the transition to the college game a little easier to handle.

"You're not afraid," said Fritsche, acknowledging the strength in numbers. "You've always got someone else there with you. But as it's gone on, the team has come together as one."

Should the freshmen maintain their level of play, who knows where the Buckeyes could be headed? Their path could end in their home rink in April.

News and notes

  • It's difficult to imagine a matchup of first- and last-place teams that carries as much intrigue as this weekend's Boston University-UMass Lowell home-and-home series.

    The Terriers stand atop Hockey East, and have won five out of six, but they still have to prove they can get things done away from home. They picked up their first road win in four tries last weekend at Merrimack.

    UMass Lowell entered the season with hopes of challenging for the conference title but has fallen just short. The River Hawks are 0-3-0 in the league, with each loss coming by one goal (but 4-0-0 outside the league). They need a complete effort this weekend to get back on track.

    "I liked the first 40 minutes of the game,'' UML coach Blaise MacDonald told the Boston Herald after Lowell gave up a third-period lead and lost to Maine last Saturday 5-4. "I'd like to think that's the type of team we have. We showed a lot of determination and poise. But then we got away from our game plan and became a different team.''

  • Cornell meets surging Vermont on Friday night in its return to ECACHL league action after earning only a point in two games at Michigan State. Even after the disappointing trip to East Lansing, Mich., the Big Red rank first in the nation in defense (1.17 goals per game) and are tied for second in offense (4.0 goals per game).

  • North Dakota, which has won just one of its past seven games (1-5-1), plays host to a suddenly hot St. Cloud State team this weekend. The Huskies have won four straight and have scored 26 goals in that span. Before the win streak, St. Cloud hadn't scored more than three goals in a game.

  • Northeastern has gone from Hockey East basement dweller to unbeaten in the league thanks mainly to the play of goaltender Keni Gibson, who stopped 77 shots in two wins last weekend. The Huskies carry a five-game unbeaten streak into a series with New Hampshire this weekend.

    "Obviously we have a great goaltender," said assistant coach Bruce Racine, the Northeastern goaltending legend who joined the staff after a 15-year professional career. "Keni is playing extremely well and giving us a chance to win every game."

  • All-CHA goalie Jeff Van Nynatten will be back between the pipes at Niagara this weekend after sitting out the past two weeks' worth of practices and games. Coach Dave Burkholder said Van Nynatten "needed some time away to evaluate where he fits on the team and what his aspirations are for hockey."

    Van Nynatten rejoined practice on Monday, and Burkholder said things are back to normal. Freshman Scott Mollison won his first two career starts during Van Nynatten's absence, and the duo is scheduled to split games this weekend against Bemidji State.

  • Minnesota and Denver meet for the second and third time this season but the first two meetings in WCHA play. Their first game was a non-conference affair at the sold-out Xcel Energy Center to benefit the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, which Minnesota won 5-2. The Gophers carry a five-game winning streak to the Mile High City.

  • Goaltending has been key to Union's revival, as the Dutchmen have alternated between junior Kris Mayotte and freshman Justin Mrazek during their four-game winning streak. Union, alone in first place in the ECACHL heading into games at Yale and Princeton, has rebounded from an 0-4-0 start that included close losses to Bowling Green and Colorado College.

  • For years, Harvard hockey players never got to enjoy the spectacle of the Harvard-Yale football game but recent schedule adjustments give the Crimson this weekend off. They've earned the chance to relax and watch their gridders go for a perfect 10-0 season -- the hockey team has won three straight, including Tuesday night's upset of No. 1 Boston College.

  • Boston College is suddenly winless in two games (0-1-1) entering Friday night's trip to Providence.

  • Thanks to an interesting scheduling quirk, Robert Morris head coach Derek Schooley will welcome his former boss and junior coach to Moon Township this week -- one week after his former college coach visited.

    Schooley, of course, played for Wayne State's Bill Wilkinson at Western Michigan in the early 1990s. Wilkinson's Warriors came in and grabbed three of a possible four points from RMU last weekend -- although the point that the Colonials did earn was the program's first ever in CHA play.

    But as unique as Wilkinson's visit was, things will get even stranger this weekend when Frank Serratore and his Air Force Falcons visit the Island Sports Center. Serratore coached Schooley on the Omaha Lancers and later hired him as an assistant at the Academy.

    Schooley worked for five years (1998-2003) at Air Force before he was hired hired by Robert Morris. He has recruited and coached almost every player who will suit up for the two respective teams this weekend, making for a special series. But, Schooley says, please don't put the spotlight on him.

    The minute that happens, it's the wrong focus to take," Schooley said. "The focus is on us getting better. On a personal note, it will be an exciting weekend because Frank has been my coach, my boss, my mentor and my friend."

  • American International's 2-0 victory against Army last Friday leaves Yale as the lone winless team in the nation. AIC earned its first win this year about a week earlier than it did last year, when the Yellow Jackets beat, you guessed it, Army on Nov. 23. Frank Novello was the star Friday, stopping all 34 shots he saw for his third career shutout (one shy of the school record). AIC validated its Army win by tying defending league champ Holy Cross, 1-1, on Tuesday night. Novello made 45 more saves.

  • Bemidji State is about to play four games in five days (Friday and Saturday at Niagara; Monday and Tuesday at Wayne State).

    ESPN.com's college hockey notebook is compiled by the staff of insidecollegehockey.com, an ESPN.com associate.