After an expectation-defying season, the Ohio State men’s hockey team that was once predicted to finish in the bottom half of the Big Ten now enters the NCAA tournament on a mission for redemption.
The Buckeyes (24-9-5, 14-8-2-1 Big Ten) begin the tournament as a No. 1 seed for the first time in program history a year after being bounced in the first round by eventual runner-up Minnesota Duluth, and take with them an added level of confidence.
“Experience is always a good thing, and last year we had nobody with experience,” head coach Steve Rohlik said. “Certainly we’ve got a bunch of guys that were there on the big stage and in a big game, tight game, and I think that’s only a real positive for us.”
After reversing their position from a four seed to a one, Ohio State must start off its tournament against Princeton (19-12-4, 10-10-2 ECAC), a team coming in with seven straight wins and two of the nation’s top four scoring players with junior forwards Max Veronneau and Ryan Kuffner.
The duo combined for 46 goals and 107 points while leading the most successful power play in college hockey.
“They’ve got a fantastic power play so, again, when a team is playing their best you know you’ve got to be prepared and certainly we have to be prepared for these guys,” Rohlik said.
Fortunately for the Buckeyes, avoiding the penalty box and being a man down have been strengths for them all season, ranking first in the nation on the penalty kill while committing the fourth-fewest penalties per game.
For Ohio State to make it out of Saturday’s opening matchup, it will need to contain Veronneau and Kuffner, maximizing opportunities against the Tigers’ subpar defense and penalty kill, which both rank in the bottom half of the NCAA.
If Ohio State escapes the clutches of the red-hot Tigers, it will most likely be met by the defending national champions.
Denver (22-9-8, 12-6-6-4 NCHC) narrowly missed out on a top seed thanks to the Buckeyes, but looks just as menacing coming out as a two seed.
All eyes will be on junior forward Troy Terry, who scored 44 points for the Pioneers a year after being an American shootout hero for the United States at the World Junior Championships. Terry is one of the strongest playmakers in the nation, but sophomore forward Henrik Borgstrom leads the team in goals with 22 and points with 50.
Denver is a top 10 team on both sides of the puck and gets in the penalty box even less than the Buckeyes while senior goalie Tanner Jaillet ranks fifth in the nation in goals against average.
If Ohio State gets matched up against the Pioneers, it will come down to doing what it has done all year by playing strong hockey on all sides, but even then, it might need some help from the team’s backbone, redshirt junior goalie Sean Romeo.
“You’ve got to be playing well, you’ve got to be a little lucky, got to have a hot goaltender, you’ve got to be healthy, I think those are all really keys,” Rohlik said.
The other opponent the Buckeyes could match up with in the following round is Penn State, an opponent that has given Ohio State trouble for much of the season.
Penn State (18-14-5, 9-10-5-2 Big Ten) is one of four Big Ten teams to make the tournament, a feat sophomore forward Tanner Laczynski said shows the strength of the conference.
“That just goes to show the depth of the Big Ten and how far the program has come, and all the programs in the Big Ten,” Laczynski said. “I think that’s big for the Big Ten and big moving forward.”
The Nittany Lions defeated Ohio State in three of the four matchups this season, including one shootout win and two wins by over three goals.
Junior forward Andrew Sturtz gave the Buckeyes the most problems, scoring in all three victories for Penn State and leading the team with 40 points.
Three of the four matchups in the season between these two ended in blowouts, so Romeo will be a key once again to limit Penn State’s offense that shoots more than any team in the NCAA.
If Ohio State can get pucks in the net quickly against a weak defensive team and get a lead early, it should have no trouble ending its struggles against the Nittany Lions.
Losing senior forward Matthew Weis to injury for the time being will be a major blow to the Buckeyes, given that he is one of the most well-rounded players on the team, but Ohio State may just be deep enough, and strong enough defensively, to make a deep tournament run.