On St. Patrick’s Day, the Ohio State men’s hockey team fell behind at a boisterous Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend, Indiana, against a Notre Dame team that rarely found itself in the loss column this season.
The Buckeyes trailed by two goals less than 15 minutes into the Big Ten tournament championship game. Although they clawed back to force overtime, the Buckeyes fell in the extra frame, unknowingly learning a lesson to apply in the upcoming NCAA men’s hockey tournament.
It has worked, and they won’t want to forget learning the difficulties of coming back after falling behind early when they take on Minnesota-Duluth in the Frozen Four April 5 in St. Paul, Minnesota.
“It’s so hard to dig out of those holes against really good teams like we saw against Notre Dame,” junior forward Mason Jobst said. “We came back, but taking it to overtime. It’s hard to get three goals past [Notre Dame goaltender Cale Morris.”
Grabbing an early lead is a good first step for any team. But with Ohio State, the step proves to be a giant leap. The Buckeyes have a record of 19-0-3 when scoring the first goal and an unblemished 16-0-0 record when leading after the first period.
Jobst said those records have echoed around the locker room in preparation for anticipated tight games against top teams in the NCAA tournament with the team looking to dictate the pace of the game and not chase a two-goal deficit.
“I think we really hammered it home in the locker room,” Jobst said. “Our coaches hammered it home all week that you just can’t afford it this time of year to give up a couple of goals early.”
As a result, in the two NCAA tournament games against Princeton and Denver, the Buckeyes never trailed. The quick starts allow an Ohio State team to play to its strength, suffocating the opposition with sound defensive play.
The Buckeyes have been able to hold onto these early leads thanks in large part to the third-best scoring defense in the country, which allows just 2.08 goals per game.
Redshirt junior goaltender Sean Romeo said his game does not change whether his team leads or trails, but that getting the lead helps the team settle down defensively.
“My job stays the same, but it definitely makes you feel a lot better looking up and seeing you have a lead,” Romeo said. “I think it gives the team confidence and helps us flow better.”
Ohio State head coach Steve Rohlik has repeatedly said this year’s success has been a product of all 27 players buying into a defensive structure that might not have been the most comfortable of moves coming from a team last year that was so offensive-minded. But here the Buckeyes are in the Frozen Four after a 20-year absence, thanks to that five-man connected defense.
When a team falls behind the Buckeyes, the deficit forces it to get ahead of itself, acting uncharacteristically to try to cut corners to get back in the game. Rohlik said the self-applied pressure feeds into the defensive play of the Buckeyes.
“All of the sudden, you get one goal, the other team is already going, ‘Boy, we got to get two to win.’ You score two. ‘We got to get three to win,’” Rohlik said. “Now, it starts putting the pressure on the other team. I think, really, that’s what that is.”
Rohlik said he does not expect to see Minnesota-Duluth, the next opponent for the Buckeyes, “cheat the game.”
“[If Minnesota-Duluth] gets down one or up one, it’s not going to change them. I feel we are not going to change either,” Rohlik said. “No matter what the score is, we are going to go 60 minutes. If we got to go longer, then we’ll go longer and I think they’ll do the same thing.”