Senior forward Matt Johnson (26) chases an opponent during an exhibition against Guelph on Oct. 4 at the Shottenstein Center. OSU won, 7-1. Credit: Melissa Prax / Lantern photographer

Senior forward Matt Johnson (26) chases an opponent during an exhibition against Guelph on Oct. 4 at the Shottenstein Center. OSU won, 7-1.
Credit: Melissa Prax / Lantern photographer

Games between in-state rivals can make the penalty box a crowded space, but for the Ohio State men’s hockey team, that may not be a problem. The Buckeyes are perfect on the penalty kill entering a home-and-home series against No. 11 Miami (Ohio).

During their season-opening series against then-No. 4 Providence College, the Buckeyes (1-1-0) held the Friars to five shots on seven power plays.

“The bottom line is when there’s any breakdowns (on the penalty kill) you see guys blocking shots,” Buckeye coach Steve Rohlik said. “That’s the epitome of where our team’s at.”

OSU’s early season special teams success is a welcome change from last season’s futilities. The Buckeyes finished last year tied for the ninth-worst penalty kill in the nation at 77.1 percent.

Increased film sessions and instruction from OSU assistant coach Joe Exter have expedited the change, Rohlik said.

“Joe’s done a fantastic job of breaking some things down and trying to simplify some things so everybody knows exactly what they’re doing,” Rohlik said.

Senior forward Matt Johnson is a veteran penalty killer and said he takes pride in the role he’s filled since his time in the United States Hockey League.

Johnson can measure that pride this year as he has lost 25 pounds since the start of last season.

“I feel more energized, I feel faster, I even feel a little bit stronger on the ice,” Johnson said.

The weight loss and physical improvements are products of a different workout program.

“I got into CrossFit this summer,” Johnson said. “I think that it more translates to an overall (physical fitness) because it’s muscle conditioning, it’s cardio and it’s also strengthening.”

OSU might be leaning on its conditioning this weekend against the RedHawks (1-1-0). Miami returns 19 players and its top eight scorers from last season.

“They’re as explosive as any team in the country,” Rohlik said. “We know the way they want to play and we have to eliminate that.”

For the RedHawks, this year’s focus is returning to the NCAA Tournament. Miami missed the cut last year for the first time since the 2004-05 season. 

OSU’s familiarity with the RedHawks has roots in the schools’ proximity and former affiliations. The in-state rivals were longtime adversaries in the Central Collegiate Hockey Conference that dissolved more than one full season ago.

“I think our team is pretty familiar with most of the guys on their team,” junior forward Anthony Greco said of Miami. “It’s fun to compete against them.”

In the past three seasons, the RedHawks have had most of the fun. Miami has gone 8-2-1 against the Buckeyes since 2011.   

“Coming into practice on Monday I think we had a little extra jump in our step knowing that we’re playing Miami,” senior captain and forward Tanner Fritz said. “We haven’t had the best success against them the last few years but I think this is our year to really turn that.”

OSU is set to play the RedHawks on Friday at 7 p.m. at the Schottenstein Center and on Saturday at 7:05 p.m. in Oxford, Ohio.

Loose Pucks

• OSU junior defenseman Craig Dalrymple and sophomore forward Nick Schilkey will not play this weekend, Rohlik said.

• Dalrymple has not played since Jan. 17. Schilkey sustained an upper-body injury last Friday against Providence and there’s no timetable for his return, Rohlik said.

• Miami is a member of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference