The Ohio State men’s hockey team (12-17-3, 7-8-3) is preparing to face off against the Michigan State Spartans (10-21-3, 6-11-1) in its final regular-season series before the Big Ten tournament. The Buckeyes have momentum on their side, as they head to East Lansing, Michigan, on a five-game unbeaten run.
The Buckeyes are coming off a home-and-home sweep of archrival Michigan, a series in which they scored 13 goals over the two games. They have scored at least four goals in each contest amid their five-game unbeaten streak.
The Spartans have also been on a decent run of late. They’ve lost just one of their last five matches. Their last game was a 5-0 rout of first-place Minnesota.
“I think the one thing we’re going to take from the series is we know they’re a good hockey team. We’ve got to be playing our best hockey to beat them. I say that every week,” said OSU coach Steve Rohlik. “That’s what it takes here with the parity across the board.
“They’ve beaten the Michigans, they’ve beaten the Minnesotas. They’ve beaten everybody in our league. So our preparation is for Friday, and we’ll take it one game at a time.”
The last time these two squads met in January, they split the series at the Schottenstein Center. The Spartans were victorious in the first encounter, 4-2, on Jan. 29, while the Buckeyes won the next day, 2-1.
Junior forward and co-captain Nick Schilkey said he believes that a fresh mindset has changed his team since the last outing between the two sides.
“I think we’re just a little more confident. We’ve been scoring some goals. They’re going to play tough defensively,” Schilkey said. “The goal is to do what we can to just play our game, and we’re just a little more confident, I think.”
Junior forward David Gust said he hopes OSU can score more goals this time around against a stingy Spartan defense.
“They kind of trap you in the neutral zone. We were talking about it today that they kind of set four guys back,” Gust said. “They just play a little trap, which is tough to get around sometimes.”
More Big Ten stars on display
One contributor to OSU’s recent success is the production of Schilkey. The Michigan native was named the Big Ten’s first star for the second week in a row. It is the third consecutive week he has been named one of the three stars, and the fourth time this season.
Yet the Buckeyes’ top scorer this season deflected personal praises, instead giving credit to his linemates for his current high production.
“I think we’re just feeding of each other. Definitely not a one-man thing at all,” Schilkey said. “When the points start going in, it’s all three of us. So it’s been nice.”
In last Friday’s victory at Ann Arbor, Schilkey grabbed an assist. He built on that in Sunday’s match, scoring two goals, including the game winner, and notching an assist. Schilkey has collected 14 points over the last six games, leading the NCAA in points per game (2.33) over the last three weeks.
Despite the accolades, Schilkey said he doesn’t think too often about the recognition and would much rather think about the team’s success as a whole.
“It’s cool to be recognized and things like that, but it’s cooler to get a sweep over Michigan,” he said. “That’s what it comes down to, and that’s what makes it fun.”
Michigan State also has a Big Ten star of its own to thank for its recent success: senior goaltender Jake Hildebrand, who collected the conference’s second star on Tuesday.
“They (have) a good goalie, Hildebrand,” Gust said. “He was Big Ten Player of the Year last year, I think. So they’ve got a good guy in between the pipes.”
Hildebrand leads the conference with 542 saves this season. His 13th career shutout in the 5-0 victory over the Golden Gophers gave him the third most in program history.
Big Ten tournament looms
As the rankings stand, the Buckeyes and the Spartans will meet again in the first round of the Big Ten tournament in St. Paul, Minnesota. OSU sits fourth in the conference standings, while Michigan State is right below in fifth. Regardless of how the weekend finishes, the two teams will be tabbed to meet again on March 17 at the Xcel Energy Center for the first round.
“These are big games. Three straight. Obviously, it’s kind of to set the tone, and they know that too,” Schilkey said. “It’s some tough games with them, so we’re getting ready for that.”
Gust reinforced that positive results in this series can key going into the tournament matchup.
“These two big games are crucial to get confidence, and if we can squeak out some wins and carry that into the Big Ten tournament, that’d be awesome,” Gust said.
For Rohlik, he isn’t getting too ahead of himself, as he said he just wants to emphasize the games currently at hand.
“We know we play them in the Big Ten tournament. But our focus is what we just talked about is the game on Friday, to be honest with you. Just keep getting better and keep playing some good hockey,” Rohlik said. “We know we’re playing a very good hockey team that’s capable of beating anybody, so we’ve got to be prepared for Friday night.”
Puck drop is scheduled for 7:05 p.m. both Friday and Saturday.