Lantern file photo
It’s been an icy fall from grace for the Ohio State men’s ice hockey team.
OSU was in first place in the CCHA Jan. 2 with a 14-4-1 record, ranked No. 2 in the country.
Fast forward to today and the Buckeyes are 15-13-5, unranked and the No. 9 seed in the upcoming CCHA conference tournament.
What caused OSU to go from a conference-and-national title contender at the season’s midpoint to a team near the bottom of the CCHA standings likely to miss out on the NCAA Tournament in a span of less than two months?
“For whatever reason, it hasn’t bounced our way,” said OSU coach Mark Osiecki. “We’ve got to deal with the hand we’re dealt and it’s going to make us stronger.”
While OSU has had some unlucky bounces during its 1-9-4 skid to end the regular season, including multiple shots against the post and some untimely deflections, the Buckeyes’ execution on the ice in the second half of the year pales in comparison to the team’s production during the season’s first three months.
Throughout the season, the Buckeyes have said their mentality is to “take the first punch” in their games. Of the 15 games OSU won before Jan. 1, they held a lead at the end of the first period in eight, and only trailed after twenty minutes in two.
The same cannot be said for the games OSU has played after the start of this calendar year. The Buckeyes have gotten outscored, 17-9, in the first stanza of the 14 games played after Jan. 1, leading after twenty minutes in only three of the 14 games.
“It’s not fun to play from behind. We always talk about having a first-punch mentality, trying to get off to a good start, and it’s something we have to work on,” said junior defenseman Devon Krogh.
Along with OSU’s first-period offensive woes, its defense has been suspect as the regular season has come to a close as well.
The Buckeyes allowed one goal or fewer in eight games before January, including three shutouts.
Of the 14 games played since, only twice have the Buckeyes allowed one goal, with no shutouts.
“We haven’t done a good job overall (on defense), but I’ll take responsibility as a captain for that,” said OSU senior defenseman and co-captain Sean Duddy.
One of the main reasons the Buckeyes finished in ninth place in the conference was their failure to win shootouts. One point is awarded to the winner of a shootout in CCHA games, and four of OSU’s contests during the second half resulted in one, with the Buckeyes losing all four. OSU finished the year with 39 conference points. If they had won all four shootouts, the Buckeyes could have finished in sixth place.
OSU senior forward Cory Schneider said the Buckeyes have been disappointed with their inability to get extra points.
“Those are unfortunate. We need to find a way to bear down and finish those shootouts,” he said.
Another reason why OSU struggled mightily down the stretch could be its youth.
The Buckeyes have 19 freshman and sophomores on their roster with many first-year players being relied on to produce. The Buckeyes’ top line is made up of three freshmen forwards — Ryan Dzingel, Tanner Fritz and Max McCormick. The team’s leaders in goals scored and shots blocked are both sophomores — forward Chris Crane and defenseman Curtis Gedig.
After a 3-2 loss to Michigan State Feb. 4, Osiecki mentioned how much experience matters when playing in the CCHA.
“We had 10 freshmen in the lineup (on Feb. 4), and that was one of the differences in the game. It helps having (Michigan State’s) kind of experience going through league play.”
While OSU did not end the regular season the way it wanted, Osiecki remains optimistic. The Buckeyes, tied for 18th in the PairWise rankings, which helps select and seed schools for the 16-team NCAA Tournament, still have a chance to play for a national championship if they are successful in the CCHA tournament.
“(The playoffs are) a new season — wipe the slate clean,” Osiecki said.
OSU will travel to South Bend, Ind., to face No.-8 seed Notre Dame in a best-of-three series starting Friday at 7:35 p.m.