The No. 6 Ohio State men’s hockey team made it a goal to earn home ice throughout the Big Ten tournament and reach the championship game for the first time since 2014.
With a different format than in the past, this year’s tournament allows the higher seeds to host their games at respective home arenas, which gave the Buckeyes a vision of playoff hockey at the Schottenstein Center early in the campaign.
“We’ve talked about it all year starting in August when the team got here that we are playing for home ice this year in the playoffs,” junior forward Brendon Kearney said. “The different format was a big deal for us just to be able to stay in Columbus.”
The second-seeded Buckeyes will open the Big Ten tournament at home with a best-of-three series against seventh-seeded Michigan State in the first round.
The Buckeyes will not take the Spartans lightly given the result of the teams’ most recent meeting, a 6-3 Michigan State win. Michigan State, the lowest seed in the tournament, used a heavy forecheck to pin the Buckeyes in their own zone. The strategy forced turnovers and pucks piled into the back of their net.
Ohio State head coach Steve Rohlik said multiple areas need improvement to ensure a different outcome.
“Puck management, number one. I talk about that a lot. We turned the puck over a lot. If they are going to play that style and come down, we just got to make plays,” Rohlik said. “We got to take care of the puck, we got to support the puck. I think that’s the key against this team, and that’s the approach we are taking.”
Michigan State has one of the conference’s most talented top lines, which has even earned a nickname of the “KHL line.” Sophomore forwards Patrick Khodorenko and Taro Hirose and freshman forward Mitchell Lewandowski accounted for 42 of the Spartans’ 86 goals this season.
Rohlik said Ohio State will not abandon the defensive style that is allowing just the third-fewest goals-against per game in the country (2.06 goals) in order to shut down the Spartans.
“We just got to take care of ourselves. Five-man defense, whoever’s out there, it doesn’t change. We got to stay connected,” Rohlik said. “I talk about this all year, it’s not just our goaltender or defense. We got to play solid five-man defense.”
Ohio State could face some daunting opponents in the ensuing rounds if it gets past Michigan State. No team would be more daunting than Notre Dame in a potential Big Ten championship game, but the preceding rounds will not be easy, given the depth of the conference. Five Big Ten teams appeared in the regular season’s final USCHO top-20 poll.
“It’s that time of year, and our league speaks for itself,” Rohlik said. “I think anybody could beat anybody on any given night.”
With back-to-back 20-win seasons for the first time in 15 years, there is a sense of confidence that Ohio State has emerged as one of the conference’s top programs and will compete for a Big Ten championship beyond just this year.
“It’s about our culture. You go out there and expect to win every night you play. It’s not going to happen. We understand that, but I think that’s the attitude that our guys have,” Rohlik said. “Credit to the 27 guys in the locker room, it’s great for the program, but certainly we’ve got a long way to go. We’re not satisfied with where we are at.”
Ohio State’s opening game of the tournament against Michigan State will begin at 7 p.m. Friday and the second game will start at 7 p.m. Saturday. If necessary, the third game of the series would commence at 7 p.m. Sunday. All games will be at the Schottenstein Center.