A little more than a month ago, the Ohio State men’s hockey team was in the driver’s seat.
Coming off a 4-1 win against Wisconsin on Feb. 9, the team’s seventh in a row, the Buckeyes were among the top teams in college hockey, ranking No. 2 in the USCHO.com poll two days later with six first-place votes.
Ohio State looked like a team ready to compete for its first national title.
Seven games later, the Buckeyes are in freefall, dropping five of its past seven games, including, most recently, a 5-1 beatdown loss to Penn State in the Big Ten tournament semifinals.
The Nittany Lions, who came in with the fourth-worst scoring defense in the NCAA, had not given up one goal or less since Dec. 8.
“We got a good hockey team in that locker room. We’ve played some really good hockey this year. We certainly weren’t at our best tonight,” Ohio State head coach Steve Rohlik said. “Something that we and me as a coach and our staff gotta make sure we’re prepared for two weeks from now.”
Two weeks from now is the NCAA tournament, something that has been seemingly locked up since the victory against the Badgers Feb. 9.
At that point, Ohio State was one regulation win from clinching the Big Ten regular season title with six games still remaining on the schedule.
It was at that point the Buckeyes became complacent.
Ohio State came out flat in both the next two games against Minnesota, falling behind to 2-0 and 3-0 deficits before dropping both games 4-3.
But no worries, right? Just win, in regulation or overtime, against Michigan once, and there’s the conference title. For the third game, the Buckeyes couldn’t do it, and it took an overtime goal by senior forward Mason Jobst to beat the Wolverines and win the program’s first regular season title.
Since then, Ohio State has only grown more fine with dropping a game here and there, and it all came to a head in the four-goal pummeling against Penn State.
Jobst knows this.
“We talked about Penn State being desperate, that’s because if they lost tonight, their season was actually over, and as much as I hate to say, maybe we didn’t have that desperation because we kind of knew that we were in the tournament,” Jobst said.
Rohlik also knows this.
“Big picture things that we’ve done enough body of work to make sure we’re in the tournament, I believe. The disappointing thing is we had a chance to obviously win another trophy,” Rohlik said. “There’s 16 teams left in the country and we’re one of them; that’s the positive.”
But how hard is it to get back on track when you’ve been asleep at the wheel for more than a month?
In the past seven games, the Buckeyes have scored 0.47 goals fewer and allowed 1.39 goals more than in the first 28 games, when they went 19-5-4.
Jobst, Ohio State’s leading scorer, has been limited to two goals and three points in the past seven games after scoring 33 points in the first 28.
Tommy Nappier had goals against average and save percentage numbers that would now lead the nation through his first 15 games, but in his past four, his .883 save percentage and 3.00 goals against average would rank him No. 75 and No. 57 in the NCAA, respectively.
The power play has gotten worse. The penalty kill has gotten worse. Ohio State, in general, has gotten worse and has only itself to blame.
The Buckeyes have a chance to get better: there are two weeks separating them from the NCAA tournament, where they will now be a two or three seed instead of the potential one seed they were looking at a month ago.
For Jobst, it is his last chance at the title, and he said he is prepared to turn on the gas.
“Now, as a senior class, the true desperation is gonna come out,” Jobst said. “Our lives are on the line every single game from here on out.”
But after a month of failing to live up to everything the team was for the first three quarters of the season, Ohio State will have to create momentum out of thin air to make a tournament run better than the one in 2018.