Ohio State forwards Dakota Joshua and John Wiitala fight for a loose puck during the first period of Ohio State’s victory over Denver in the NCAA Tournament. Credit: Nick Hudak | Lantern photographer

When senior forward Matthew Weis fell to injury just before the Big Ten tournament championship against Notre Dame, it was a devastating blow to the Ohio State men’s hockey team. The loss was felt not just on, but off the ice.

Weis was a key cog for the Buckeyes this season, putting up 37 points in 37 games. His leadership isn’t gone — he has still traveled with the team — but his absence has forced other players to step up in key situations, while serving as a rallying cry for a team with big aspirations.

“It was a tough bounce to lose Matt. He’s one of the leaders on our team. He’s still right there with us and we are doing it for him almost, essentially,” junior forward Dakota Joshua said. “It’s just next man up on this team and obviously, I got the call and it feels good.”

Joshua has moved up in the lineup, assuming more responsibility with both crucial faceoffs and goal scoring, and has flourished as a physical presence for a Buckeye team lacking size.   

In games where puck possession has been decided along the boards, it doesn’t hurt to have a 6-foot-3, 200-pound frame get involved and pry pucks loose. But Joshua said he’s more than just a big body. 

“I’d like to think that I can play any time of game and any style. Given a tight game, it really doesn’t make a difference,” Joshua said. “You know they are all going to be tight at this point, and at the end of the year. I like playing in tight games, for sure.”

Joshua has elevated his game to fill the void left by Weis, and many of the other Buckeyes have done the same. Ohio State head coach Steve Rohlik has preached all year about a next-man-up mentality, and time after time, the depth of his team has risen to the occasion. 

“The game of hockey, you are going to have injuries. [It’s] next man up and we’re going to continue to think that way,” Rohlik said. “We’re excited, we’re pretty humbled, but at the same time, we look forward to the new challenge.”

Ohio State hasn’t just got by in the NCAA tournament. It’s proved that it belongs, shutting down a red-hot Princeton offense, while also beating last years’ national champion Denver by a resounding score of 5-1. 

In a tournament where many penciled the Buckeyes to fall in the Midwest region, Joshua said the underdog mentality fueled the team to prove the experts wrong.

“It helps us almost feed into our game, having a chip on our shoulder, I’d love to see your guys’ brackets and who you guys picked,” Joshua said. “Not a lot of people had us coming out of this side [of the bracket] so, it just feeds into our game and helps us play better for sure, but hopefully people know who we are now.”