Fresh off a sweep of then-No. 7 North Dakota, the Ohio State women’s hockey team (14-15-5, 9-14-5) is set to travel to Minnesota Duluth (13-13-6, 11-11-6) for a best-of-three series in the first round of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs.
Coach Nate Handrahan’s team won three straight to end the regular season, finishing fifth in the WCHA for the third consecutive year.
But both of the squads the past two years had more wins than this year’s edition, and a lot of that has to do with the first half of their seasons. The Buckeyes went 5-11-2 in their first 18 games, a run that included a stretch of nine games without a win.
Assistant coach Carson Duggan said the first half of the season was tough, but once the team came back from its holiday break, things began to change.
“The break might’ve come at the right time,” Duggan said. “They were mentally fresh and came back a different group, and it showed in the intensity and execution of practices.”
Since the turn of the year, the Buckeyes are 9-4-3 and have swept Penn State, Minnesota State, St. Cloud State and North Dakota in that time.
Junior forward Taylor Kuehl, who is one of five Buckeyes with at least 20 points this season, also credited the holiday break as the catalyst for the team’s improvement.
“We really struggled at the start of the season,” Kuehl said. “We weren’t pleased with how we started and I think ever since Christmas break, we’ve been a completely different team and we have so much more determination and motivation.”
Now with the postseason beginning, the Buckeyes face a familiar foe in Minnesota Duluth. The Bulldogs have been OSU’s first round opponents for the past two years, and OSU leading scorer, senior forward Ally Tarr, said that familiarity gives her team confidence.
“We’ve always had a little bit of a rivalry with Duluth,” Tarr said. “They beat us my sophomore year and then last year we beat them, so we know that we can beat them and we know that if we play our best we have a good chance of coming out of there with a victory.”
The two teams have played each other four times so far this season, with the Bulldogs winning twice and the other games ending in ties. In the past 10 games in the series, the away team is 8-0-2.
But regardless of what statistics say, Duggan said neither team can take anything for granted.
“When it comes down to it, you still have to go out and do your job,” Duggan said. “Come playoff hockey, anything can happen.”