The No. 6 Ohio State men’s hockey team (18-6-4, 11-6-1-0 Big Ten) travels to South Bend, Indiana, Friday and Saturday to take on top-ranked Notre Dame (21-5-2, 15-2-1-1 Big Ten) for a colossal Big Ten weekend series.
Ohio State has won eight of its last 10 games, but is coming off a loss to Michigan State to split a weekend series.
Notre Dame enters having lost just two of its last 20 games with the only blemishes coming against No. 17 Wisconsin and No. 12 Minnesota. It started that stretch with back-to-back wins versus the Buckeyes at the Schottenstein Center in early November.
“I think we’re different because we’ve got more experience. We’ve played quite a few games and we’ve played some close games. I hope to think we’ve grown as a team. Our special teams, maybe our power play, is in a better spot,” Ohio State head coach Steve Rohlik said. “Against a team like this, it all comes down to the little things. We didn’t do enough of the little things against them last time here. Hopefully, we’ve corrected some of that stuff.”
Notre Dame is one of the best defensive teams in the country, allowing just two goals per game, third-fewest in the NCAA. The Irish defensemen almost act as extra goaltenders, blocking shots while clearing traffic in front of the net. They also can contribute offensively. Senior defenseman Jordan Gross leads the group with 21 point, while junior defenseman Bobby Nardella has 18 points and sophomore defenseman Andrew Peeke adds 11.
If a player manages to get past those defensemen, he would still have to deal with sophomore goaltender Cale Morris. Morris has posted some of the best numbers in collegiate hockey, allowing the second-fewest goals-against average at 1.68 and registering the highest save percentage at .952.
“You’ve got to get a guy in front of their goaltender. You’ve got to work to get into the dirty areas. It comes down to competing and it’s the one-on-one battles,” Rohlik said. “It’s either our will to get the goaltender or their will defensively to not let us there.”
The Buckeyes’ special teams play has been a key for the team when its 5-of-5 play has faltered. The Ohio State power play has found its way into the top 10 in the country at 23.5 percent, joining the top-ranked penalty kill at 90.4 percent.
Continuing that power-play success against Notre Dame won’t be easy, though, since the Irish’s penalty kill is fifth in the country at 88 percent.
“We are going up against one of the best teams, No. 1 in the country and they are great at special teams, especially on the penalty kill,” Rohlik said. “Our best penalty kill is being disciplined and not taking penalties, and they do that as well. They don’t take a lot of penalties. When we get an opportunity, we’ve got to take advantage of it.”
The Buckeyes sit in second place in the Big Ten standings with 34 points, 13 points behind the Irish, who are first with 47 points. With a win, Notre Dame can clinch the Big Ten regular-season title, which includes the top seed and a bye in the Big Ten tournament.
The Irish need a victory at home where they have gone 10-3-1 this season. Ohio State redshirt defenseman Wyatt Ege would like to have them wait another week.
“I don’t think you want anyone to have that success against you. I think that’s a big part of it,” Ege said. “We know that we are going to have to face them in the Big Ten Tournament too, potentially. I think this is a big weekend for us to send a message.”
Puck drop for the weekend series will be at 7:35 p.m. Friday and at 7 p.m. Saturday. Both games will be played at the Compton Family Ice Arena.