Shelby Lum / Lantern photographer
The Buckeyes are looking ahead to playing in the new Big Ten Hockey Conference after ending their season Saturday in the semifinals of the CCHA tournament.
The loss was the final game for Ohio State men’s hockey in the CCHA, as this season was the league’s last. Other schools joining the Big Ten Hockey Conference are Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State.
The Buckeyes fell Saturday against the No. 2 seed Notre Dame Fighting Irish, 3-1. The loss put an end to the Buckeyes’ up and down year as the team finished the season with a record of 16-17-7.
But coach Mark Osiecki said he was in no way disappointed with what his team was able to do this year.
“I’m awfully proud of what they went through this year,” the third-year coach said. “We said to our guys after, we were proud of the fact that to get to this point, to get on this great stage. It’s been a while for our program.”
For the first time since 2005, the Buckeyes earned the right to play in the CCHA semifinals in Detroit at Joe Louis Arena. In order to get to that point, though, the team had to overcome injuries, such as junior defenseman Curtis Gedig’s hurt shoulder and freshman forward Anthony Greco’s high ankle sprain, and a schedule that took them away from Columbus for the first six games of the year.
Osiecki said he is proud of the way the team fought through all the injuries and tough travel to stay together.
“We’re going to look back on our year and reflect on that tough start to the year with some difficult travel, and then we got injury problems right away, on that first weekend,” Osiecki said. “Our guys did a heck of a job to battle through that all year. We couldn’t be more proud of the way these guys responded to each other, and it’s a great step for this program.”
It was the first time OSU finished in the top four of the conference standings in eight years, giving them a first-round bye in the tournament. Sophomore forward Max McCormick said achieving that goal was a top priority at the start of the season.
“I think we believed in ourselves all along and wanted to take it one step at a time,” McCormick said March 21. “The first thing was to get that bye and we got that and we got home ice. That was huge for us.”
Senior goalie Brady Hjelle, one of only four seniors on the team, called getting the opportunity to play at Joe Louis Arena “one of the biggest highlights of the year.” Hjelle turned in one of his best performances of the season during the Buckeyes’ final game. His 41 saves helped him become OSU’s all-time leader in season save percentage, with his .933 mark passing Jeff Maund’s .921 set in 1998-99. Hjelle’s 2.08 goals-against average on the season is second all-time in Buckeye history, just behind the 2.07 Dave Caruso set in 2005-2006. He was one of three finalists for the Most Valuable Player award in the CCHA, which Miami (Ohio)’s Austin Czarnik was awarded March 22.
Osiecki said that Hjelle was an MVP to OSU, though.
“Obviously he meant a ton (to our team),” Osiecki said. “In our eyes, he’s our MVP, and he’s the MVP of our league. If you take him off our team, obviously we play differently.”
After playing two seasons at Minnesota Duluth and transferring to OSU, Hjelle saw limited time last season behind then-senior Cal Heeter. Osiecki said the way Hjelle waited his turn showed genuine sportsmanship.
“Brady (Hjelle)’s meant the world to our team this year,” Osiecki said. “What a great kid, going through a lot of adversity to get to this point.”
Looking ahead to this fall, OSU’s three leading scorers will return to provide a formidable punch for the offense. Sophomore forwards Ryan Dzingel, Tanner Fritz, and McCormick finished the season with 38, 37 and 31 points, respectively.
Schedules for next season have not been released, but the team is slated to play 20 conference games, down from the 28 played this year. The winner of the conference tournament at the end of the season will be awarded the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.