The No. 10 Ohio State women’s hockey team is unlikely to land a spot in its second straight NCAA tournament unless it gains an automatic berth with a conference tournament championship.
The Buckeyes (18-12-2, 12-10-2 WCHA) open postseason play Friday in Columbus when they face Minnesota State (9-17-7, 3-16-5 WCHA) for a best-of-three-game series in the opening round of the WCHA Tournament.
“It’s playoff time. It’s like hitting the reset button, and everyone’s back at zero,” Ohio State head coach Nadine Muzerall said.
For Minnesota State, which hasn’t won a game since Jan. 19, a reset might be exactly what it needs.
Ohio State freshman goalie Andrea Braendli said the Mavericks are hungry for a win and have nothing to lose.
“It makes it dangerous,” Braendli said. “They’re unpredictable. I think they’re going to come flying at us.”
Despite its second-to-last place standing in the conference, Minnesota State did claim one victory against the Buckeyes in four meetings this season.
In her team’s 3-0 Dec. 1 victory against the Buckeyes, Minnesota State freshman goalie Abigail Levy made saves on all 41 Ohio State shots. Levy is one of two netminders in the country to hold Ohio State scoreless this season.
“Their goalie was playing unbelievable,” Braendli said. “We have to find a solution for that. That team is made out of her.”
Levy notched five shutouts with only 20 goals allowed in the first 15 games of the season but has given up 56 goals in the subsequent 17 games, which included a nine-game winless streak.
Braendli, however, is playing her best hockey of the year in goal for the Buckeyes. The Swiss product earned NCAA No. 1 Star of the Week honors after a 92-save road series this past weekend against then-No. 1 Wisconsin, which has given her the best save percentage in the WCHA at .938.
Muzerall said the coaching staff has worked hard with Braendli on specific things that need to be “buckled down” in the starting goalie’s game, which has allowed her to come up with big performances in recent weeks.
“She came with so much poise and confidence,” Muzerall said. “She’s just so calm in the net. She’s really the foundation we’ve needed.”
Despite back-to-back shootout victories at Wisconsin this past weekend, Ohio State dropped a spot in the national rankings to No. 10.
Ohio State senior forward Madison Field, who tallied her 100th career point in Saturday’s matchup against the Badgers, said frustration is mounting.
“It seems like everything we do, we still are one step behind everyone,” Field said.
Ohio State and Minnesota State are ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the conference in penalty minutes per game averaging 7.3 and 6.9, respectively. Muzerall said there is an expectation for the Buckeye offense to take advantage of power play opportunities this weekend.
“We’ve been working a lot on our special teams because it’s been almost a third of our game,” Muzerall said. “We’re burning the candle on both ends with that.”
The Mavericks have scored a WCHA-low eight first period goals this season but have given up 29 to opponents. Muzerall said the Buckeyes, who scored a goal 23 seconds into Saturday’s Wisconsin matchup, are focused on converting early in order to demoralize Minnesota State.
Field, who scored the game-winning goal in overtime against Minnesota State in her team’s second meeting this season, said the Buckeyes can’t afford to underestimate any opponent this late in the season.
“We really need to go in there like they’re the No. 1 team and just play the best game possible,” Field said.
Despite being favored this weekend, the odds remain stacked against Ohio State to qualify for the NCAA tournament, which Field said is a pervasive motivation for the Buckeyes.
“We like to be the underdogs. We always have been, and we kind of feed off of that,” Field said. “We just have to keep with that mentality to prove people wrong.”
The first two games at the OSU Ice Rink are slated for 6:07 p.m. Friday and 3:07 p.m. Saturday, with a possible deciding matchup at 3:07 p.m. Sunday.