Ohio State secured a No. 1 seed in the Midwest region of the NCAA men’s hockey tournament for the first time in school history. Its reward was a matchup against one of the nation’s hottest teams.
The Buckeyes (24-9-5, 17-9-2-1 Big Ten) will travel to Allentown, Pennsylvania, to face red-hot Princeton (19-12-4, 10-10-2 ECAC) in the opening round of the tournament Saturday at the PPL Center.
The Princeton Tigers, who harbor two of the most dangerous scorers in the nation, captured the ECAC championship in a 2-1 overtime win against the No. 9 Clarkson Golden Knights this past weekend. The Tigers are unbeaten in their past eight games and have won their past seven. Despite the rare matchup with Princeton — the two teams have faced off just three times before — Ohio State head coach Steve Rohlik said his team will be ready for the challenge.
“They’re playing extremely well … They’ve got some high-end talent. They’ve got a fantastic power play,” Rohlik said. “When a team is playing their best, you know that you’ve got to be prepared and certainly we’ve got to be prepared for these guys.”
The Tigers’ production is headlined by two of the country’s top scorers, junior forwards Ryan Kuffner and Max Veronneau, who each have at least 50 points this year. Kuffner is tied for second in the country in goals with 29 and is on a 10-game point streak. Veronneau is second nationally in assists with 38.
These gifted players have showcased their skills on the nation’s top-ranked power play, which clicks at an astounding 28.5 percent rate. Kuffner leads the team in power-play goals with eight, tied with senior forward David Hallisey.
“They’re very creative, they kind of run-and-gun a little bit,” Rohlik said. “They’ve got some high-end skill talent. We’ve got to be focused and we’ve got to be on our toes.”
On the other side of special teams, Ohio State presents the top-ranked penalty kill at 89.3 percent, proving that special teams will be a battle of strengths in this matchup. Rohlik offered a simple solution against a deadly power play.
“The No. 1 thing against the top power play is to be disciplined and stay out of the box, don’t be stupid in that area,” Rohlik said. “We’ve been very good all year and hopefully we continue with that.”
Ohio State will start its journey in hopes of an NCAA championship without senior forward Matthew Weis. One of the team leaders, Weis suffered an upper-body injury in practice prior to the Big Ten tournament championship game against top-ranked Notre Dame. The impact of Weis’ vacancy is felt up and down the lineup, especially with sophomore forward Tanner Laczynski.
“That’s a huge loss for us, tough to replace that caliber of a player. Like I said before, we have a tight group, we have a deep group,” Laczynski said. “Obviously, guys are going to have to step up. Just a team, as a whole, we’re going to have to play for him.”
Weis serves as an impact player on the Buckeyes’ top line, killing penalties and performing well on the power play. His absence will require other players to elevate their games at the most important time of the year.
“We’ve had guys out of the lineup all year and it hasn’t changed our mentality or our approach,” Rohlik said. “It’s going to force other guys to be a hero, and other guys to play above where they’re at. Not change who you are, but maybe dig a little bit deeper.”
Puck drop between Ohio State and Princeton will be at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at the PPL Center in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The winner will advance to the Midwest regional final and play the winner of the other semifinal between Denver and Penn State.