After an emotional season sweep against rival Michigan and with a trip to No. 2 Notre Dame on the horizon, Ohio State head coach Steve Rohlik knows not to look past a team that is currently sitting at the bottom of the Big Ten standings.
No. 5 Ohio State (17-5-4, 10-5-1-0 Big Ten) has the chance to extend its home winning streak to seven games when it hosts Michigan State (9-16-1, 3-12-1-1 Big Ten) for a weekend series on Friday and Saturday.
“They can beat anybody. To me, that puts you exactly where you need to be and that means focus, be ready to go and put the time in during practice. That’s what we’re doing,” Rohlik said. “Notre Dame, that doesn’t even cross my mind. Michigan State, Friday night, here at home, crosses my mind because we got to be at our best.”
Ohio State finished a season sweep of No. 20 Michigan for the first time since the 1985-86 season and have lost one game in its past 10 matchups. Michigan State limps into Columbus with seven losses in its last eight games, two of those defeats coming at the hands of the Buckeyes in East Lansing, Michigan in early January.
“Obviously, they are at the bottom of the standings, but as you’ve seen in this league over and over, everyone can beat everyone on any given night,” junior forward Mason Jobst said. “They played us really tough the last couple of games when we were up there. They’ve got some great young players and I expect them to come at us really hard.”
Michigan State has some offensive weapons. Sophomore forward Taro Hirose leads the team with 21 assists and 30 points. The Spartans also have freshman forward Mitchell Lewandowski, who leads them with 15 goals.
The problem with the Spartans is they can’t seem to keep the puck out of their own net. Sophomore goaltender John Lethemon has struggled this year, posting a .905 save percentage and a 2.75 goals against average.
Since missing the Penn State game on Jan. 13 with a lower-body injury, Jobst has elevated his play to a new level, with three goals and assists apiece in three games since returning from injury.
“I just think the bigger the game, the bigger the player,” Rohlik said.“When it comes down to games like this every weekend, your best players have to be your best players, and he’s certainly one of those guys.
“He plays like that because he practices as well as he does. He brings it every day; he never cheats the company. Those are the guys that are going to have success.”
Ohio State has leaned on its nation-leading penalty kill, which sits at 90.8 percent on the season. Redshirt junior goalie Sean Romeo, who earned Big Ten First Star of the Week last week, made 60 saves on 63 shots, good for a .952 save percentage and a 1.50 goals against average.
“Calm, cool, collective. Just kind of gives us that confidence. He’s done the job like that all year,” Rohlik said. “When you have a little bit of that swagger, it certainly helps your penalty kill. He is your best penalty killer.”
Another core aspect to a nation-leading penalty kill is the willingness to block shots, which Jobst exemplified when he blocked blocking multiple shots on a 5-on-3 penalty kill in the final moments last weekend to seal the season sweep against Michigan.
“It hurts, but I think once you see other guys doing it, you’re willing to buy in,” Jobst said. “Our defense has done a great job all year. Once you see those guys do it, you want to go out there and do it for them as well.”
Puck drop for the weekend series against the Spartans will be at 7 p.m. both Friday and Saturday at the Schottenstein Center.