After locking up its first NCAA tournament appearance in eight years, the Ohio State men’s hockey team — the No. 4 seed in the West region — travels to Fargo, North Dakota, to take on the No. 2 overall seed Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs in the first round.
For a third time this season, the Buckeyes will be without senior defenseman Josh Healey, who was suspended for two games by the Big Ten conference Monday as a result of a game misconduct penalty that occurred against Wisconsin on March 17 in the Big Ten tournament.
Although Healey is a key piece to his defense, OSU coach Steve Rohlik said the Scarlet and Gray continue to hold a “next man up” mentality in these types of situations. Despite their lack of experience, Rohlik said that younger defensemen, such as freshmen Gordi Meyer and Matt Miller, will be vital in the absence of his skillful senior on the backline.
“These guys have played all year with us. They know what we want to do and how we want to play,” Rohlik said. “At the end of the day, these two guys have played a lot of minutes for us this year, and I have all the confidence in the world that they’re going to go up there and do their job.”
With a poised Healey out of the lineup, senior forward and captain Nick Schilkey emphasized that the Buckeye forwards will have to occasionally backtrack to help out the OSU backline — and echoed his coach’s belief in the younger members of the Scarlet and Gray to step up when needed on defense against the Bulldogs’ impressive offense.
“I think the biggest thing is making sure that us as forwards, we focus on getting back and helping (the defense) out,” Schilkey said. “It’s a good opportunity for some other (defensemen) to step up, too, and I think some guys are going to relish in that opportunity.”
Minnesota-Duluth enters this matchup behind a strong core that has made the NCAA tournament for a third-straight year, and ranks as the No. 8 scoring offense in the nation at more than 3.42 goals per game. Senior winger Alex Iafallo and sophomore forward Adam Johnson have each registered 45 and 36 points this season, respectively.
Additionally, the Bulldogs’ defense also ranks among the best in the nation at No. 11 in the USCHO.com statistics, mainly behind the play of freshman goaltender Hunter Miska and sophomore defenseman Neal Pionk — who Rohlik calls a “difference maker” on the ice.
Despite Minnesota-Duluth’s overall depth and abilities in all facets of the game, Rohlik said his team isn’t looking to make any changes to its game plan, and is trying to stick to what propelled the Buckeyes to their first 20-win season since 2009.
“You wouldn’t say they’ve got a lot of weaknesses looking at them, but they’re as beatable as anybody else,” Rohlik said. “They’ve got to go out and play the game, and we’ve got to go out and play the game for 60 minutes — and we’re going to go empty the tanks and go in there with confidence.”
With this being the first NCAA tournament appearance for the players on his roster, and possibly the final game in an OSU jersey for his seven seniors, Rohlik said his biggest message to his team this week has been to appreciate what they have accomplished this season and what they have done for the program during their time in Columbus.
Ultimately, however, the collective goal of the Buckeyes is to survive and advance.
“We’re not satisfied with just going up there and being a part of it, but it’s also a big reason why you work this hard to have this experience and enjoy it,” Rohlik said. “We’re going to enjoy it, but to enjoy it, you’ve got to go up there and try to win hockey games.”
Puck drop for the first round Friday night is set for 6:30 p.m at Scheels Arena.