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Men’s hockey: Penalty kill improvements prove to be vital late in the season

Ohio State senior goalie Matt Tomkins makes a save in the second period against Minnesota on Feb. 11 at the Schottenstein Center. Credit: Jacob Myers | Assistant Sports Editor

The Ohio State men’s hockey team is progressively transforming its penalty kill unit from a weakness to a strength heading into the final stretch of the regular season.

During last weekend’s series in East Lansing, Michigan, the Buckeyes (16-8-6, 7-6-1-1) held Michigan State (6-19-3, 2-10-2-0) to a very pedestrian 2 for 9 in power play situations.

Prior to the weekend, the Buckeyes were in need of major improvements in the unit’s performance. With a penalty kill of 74 percent, the Buckeyes have the second-worst percentage in Division I hockey. While the numbers might be inflated with the absence of penalties, the team has not been successful in killing off their opponent’s opportunities.

A clear example that led to a change on the unit was a 6-5 loss to Minnesota on Feb. 11. The Golden Gophers scored all six goals on power plays. For coach Steve Rohlik, it was evident the performance of the special teams needed to be addressed.

“We worked on it and we continue to work on it an awful lot,” he said. “Unfortunately when you play against Minnesota, and you are short-handed for almost a full period of a hockey game, bad things are going to happen.”

Rohlik saw the results of the team’s work from practice during the unit’s solid performance last weekend against Michigan State. He said he can sense the team is building confidence in their special teams, but also offers an easy solution to the season-long dilemma.

“The penalty kill is all about confidence, and hopefully right now we’re getting more confident on the kill,” Rohlik said. “Your best penalty kill is not taking the penalty, so hopefully we can head in that direction.”

Senior forward captain David Gust echoed his coach’s comments.

“We always say special teams wins hockey games and, in practice the past couple of weeks, we have focused on our special teams,” Gust said. “We have sharpened up in that area in the past couple of weekends and it has paid off.”

Heading into the final stretch of the regular season, the team knows that the special teams needs to keep improving in order to stay in the hunt for the NCAA tournament. Senior forward captain Nick Schilkey clarified that the extra-effort plays made the difference against MSU.

“Some of the biggest areas are blocking shots and being hard on pucks to clear them all the way down,” Schilkey said. “It’s a matter of guys willing to get in front of the shots and that was the difference last weekend.”

Schilkey believes that mentality will be required to continue last weekend’s penalty kill success going forward.

Looking ahead on the schedule, it appears imperative that the Buckeyes continue to grow in the aspect of special teams. This weekend, Michigan comes into Columbus as the 18th-ranked power-play team in the nation. OSU finishes the regular season in a two-game series at Wisconsin, the ninth-best power-play team.

First faceoff is set for 7 p.m. Friday and 5 p.m. Saturday in another crucial series against Michigan.

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