DETROIT — Less than a week ago, the Ohio State men’s hockey team was heading into a crucial away series at Wisconsin.
Two losses meant the Buckeyes would probably have to win the Big Ten tournament to make the NCAA tournament. A split would keep the Buckeyes where they were — just outside the top 16 teams that make the tournament. But a series sweep meant OSU would be in excellent position for an at-large bid into the tournament.
OSU outscored the Badgers 8-2 in that series, pulling off two huge road victories. On Friday at Joe Louis Arena in the Big Ten tournament semifinal, Wisconsin replicated OSU’s urgency from the week prior, which resulted in a physical 2-1 victory over the Buckeyes.
“Last week, we were a little bit on our heels for the first time all year, as far as waiting to see how the game was going to be played.” Wisconsin coach Tony Granato said. “We played solid defensively and try to wear them down with forechecking and a lot of offensive zone shifts. The other plan was to stay out of the penalty box.”
One could tell Wisconsin was playing with its season on the line on Friday, exemplified in its defense. The Wisconsin forwards pressured OSU to make long passes from its defensive zone and had active sticks along the boards against a team that has struggled all season to clear pucks from its own zone.
“We tried to stretch it out too many times. We didn’t try to exploit their (defense) in their zone as much as we could’ve,” Schilkey said. “Just couldn’t get enough going offensively.”
At Wisconsin, OSU’s transition-style offense systematically works better because the Badgers play on an Olympic-style rink, which is bigger than the NHL-regulated size the two teams played on at Joe Louis Arena. Speedster forwards such as senior Nick Schilkey and sophomore Mason Jobst, the conference’s scoring co-champion, didn’t have as much room to operate on the offensive end.
“They like to throw guys up the ice and get into foot races,” said Wisconsin sophomore forward Luke Kunin. “I thought our forwards did a good job of keeping them back and staying in the middle, and our D did a good job of keeping them on the outside.”
Jobst had four points last weekend against Wisconsin. On Friday, he had three shots and one assist on a powerplay. But except for one shot in the third period, Jobst wasn’t a major threat to Wisconsin freshman goaltender Jack Berry who was spectacular in net for the Badgers.
“We tried to play defense last week” Granato said. “This week, we played defense by playing good offense. When it was in our end, we blocked those shots when we needed to, but we got it out quick.”
The Buckeyes have relied on its offense for the entire season, and why shouldn’t they? Their powerplay ranks first in the nation, scoring on an absurd 32 percent of its chances, and the offense as a whole is ranked third in the nation with nearly four goals a game. Schilkey, Jobst and senior forward David Gust are the three leading goal scorers on a team that has seven players with double-digit goals.
The penalty kill, which was fourth worst in the country before the game, has been OSU’s Achilles’ heel. But Friday, they were 3 for 3 — without counting senior defenseman Josh Healey’s five-minute major and game misconduct in the final minutes.
One would think with the penalty kill taking care of business, OSU’s offense would find a way to get over the hump. But not on Friday. Not against a team that is fighting for an NCAA tournament bid.
“Really throughout the whole game I thought when they pushed, we pushed harder,” Kunin said.
The Badgers were sitting at No. 18 in the PairWise rankings. Now, they are just on the outside at No. 17, while the Buckeyes remain at No. 13.
Now, it’s not like Wisconsin hadn’t had success against OSU this season. The Badgers swept OSU in January — one in Columbus and one at Madison Square Garden in New York. OSU coach Steve Rohlik said that Wisconsin attitude he saw in late January was present on Friday when it mattered most.
“It was a playoff-type hockey game,” he said. “The score is going to be down and there’s going to be a chance either way. That’s how the game went tonight and that’s what I expected.”