One of the first goals the Ohio State women’s hockey team set this season was to get past the first round of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association tournament, something it has not done since the 2012-13 season.
The sixth-ranked Buckeyes have that opportunity on their own ice this weekend when it hosts Minnesota State in the first round in the tournament. The best-of-three series begins at 6:07 p.m. Saturday. Then it will continue with Game 2, which is set for 3:07 p.m. Saturday, and Game 3, if necessary, which is slated for 3:07 p.m. Sunday.
Ohio State head coach Nadine Muzerall said it is an honor for her team, a second seed, to be in a position where it is seeded high enough to be able to host a matchup in the first round.
“That was one of the goals the girls discussed with me last season. None of them had been a part of that yet,” Muzerall said. “We aren’t trying to build up too much hype about it. We’ve earned that, being second in our conference. We have to take advantage that we’ve only lost two games at home.”
Ohio State’s rise to a national-championship contender with a second-year coach was unforeseeable after a sub-.500 season last year, but that was the vision Muzerall and the team constructed. Before the Buckeyes can strive for the top prize, the WCHA tournament will set a benchmark for Ohio State with top-seeded Wisconsin likely waiting in the conference title game.
“We’re really happy we reached that goal, but we are not done yet,” freshman forward Emma Maltais said. “We have to keep going, this weekend is our first focus for the playoffs.”
The Buckeyes could face some tough opponents in the coming games, namely Wisconsin, but when they’re clicking, they pose a threat to the rest of the conference.
“Our unpredictability, at times, can be dangerous to other opponents, but also to ourselves,” Muzerall said. “If we can stay competitive and consistent in practice, then I’m feeling pretty confident that we are the most dangerous team in our league.”
Ohio State is fresh off a weekend in which this year’s group became the winningest team in program history, while redshirt junior goaltender Kassidy Sauve broke the program record for most saves, passing Chelsea Knapp, who held the previous record with 2,421.
Sauve said her record is more reflective of the team than herself.
“I think that’s a testament to the character of these 23 girls I get to play with every day,” Sauve said. “It takes quite a special group to change the culture. To get that home ice after such a long time, it really shows what we have been doing as a group in the locker room and on the ice.”
Ohio State played Minnesota State two weeks ago and split the series. Muzerall said the Buckeyes weren’t going to approach the game the same way they did in the regular season.
“We have to attack it one game at a time.” Muzerall said, “I think [Minnesota State] is going to be very tough, we gave them a little bit of hope two weeks ago so we have to come out strong and come out right away.”
Ohio State more than achieved its goal in phase one of the season, breaking the program record for wins in a season. The next phase is continuing to elevate the program’s status in collegiate hockey by playing well in tournament play.
“That’s the goal, keep going and make our season go as long as possible,” Sauve said. “As long as we stick to the things we’ve been doing as a team. A lot of teams, at this time of year, start to get tired. As long as we take the right measurements to prepare for the [games] I think we are set.”
If Ohio State finds its way past the Mavericks in the first round, it will be met with a series against either Minnesota or St. Cloud State, which are ranked third and sixth in the conference, respectively.
“The girls want to live another day,” Muzerall said. “I’m hoping that we come with some fire power and blow away the people we did earlier on in the season.”