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Men’s hockey: Ohio State’s 24 hours before NCAA selection ended in program’s breakthrough

OSU senior forward David Gust highfives his teammates hands during the Big Ten quarterfinal against Michigan State. Credit: Courtesy of Ric Kruszynski

Following the Ohio State men’s hockey team’s loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament semifinals, the wait began.

After a 21-11-6 season, the Buckeyes didn’t know if they had done enough to clinch the program’s first NCAA tournament bid since 2009.

Sitting in the locker room following the loss, senior forward and captain Nick Schilkey said there was a strange vibe to the team because they were unsure whether their season was over.

“Right after the game up there at (Joe Louis Arena), there was a lot of mixed emotions in the locker room,” said OSU coach Steve Rohlik. “I just said, ‘We’re still alive,’ and there’s a chance and we just need some good things to happen. I just told the guys when we got back that this thing can still happen, and let’s plan on practicing Monday.”

Gathered at the Schottenstein Center for the NCAA hockey tournament selection show on Sunday, OSU saw its name matched up with No. 2 Minnesota Duluth in the West region.

Despite this year’s squad racking up the program’s first 20-win season in eight years, coach Steve Rohlik said the opportunity didn’t come from just this year’s success; it has been a work in progress.

“This is for all the alumni, this is for everybody that’s put a brick in the wall here at Ohio State — and we’re fortunate enough that we’ve got a chance here in the big dance,” Rohlik said.

This chance to play on the largest stage in collegiate hockey, however, almost didn’t happen.

Following an excellent first half of the season, the Buckeyes suffered losses to Michigan and Michigan State during their final two home series, leaving Rohlik worried his team would be “on the fence” of postseason play.

A road sweep of Wisconsin the final weekend before the Big Ten tournament, however, was a turning point for the Scarlet and Gray, Rohlik said, and his team felt its body of work and resume would be enough to secure the at-large bid entering Detroit and the conference tournament as the No. 3 seed.

But if Wisconsin won the Big Ten tournament against Penn State, the Buckeyes likely would have been left out of the tournament field.

The team watched the grueling double overtime game to the final goal that put Penn State over the top and knocked Wisconsin out of contention.

This emotional rollercoaster is somewhat familiar to the seven seniors on the Scarlet and Gray roster. Four years ago during their freshman season, OSU held a two-goal lead over Wisconsin with less than seven minutes to play in the conference tournament championship.

After two Badger goals less than a minute apart in regulation, and one in overtime, OSU’s automatic bid slipped through their fingers.

Now four years later, Schilkey and the Buckeyes have broken a barrier the program failed to surpass in almost a decade.

“We were so close freshman year, you know, five minutes away from getting that automatic bid,” Schilkey said. “But we’ve worked hard to get back to this spot, and we’re excited to be here.”

Additionally, Schilkey said just making the 16-team bracket is great, but added that the Buckeyes have their sights set on a much larger prize.

“It’s not just about getting here, it’s about making some noise too,” Schilkey said. “We set goals to be a national champion at the beginning of the year, and this is just another step in the right direction.”

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