When you face off against the best team in the country, there’s no room for error.
The Ohio State men’s hockey team (15-12-4, 5-8-4) found that out first-hand on Friday night as they fell 5-1 to No. 1 Minnesota (24-4-5, 13-2-2) at Value City Arena.
The Gophers took the lead just 2:03 into the first period, and they were two goals up by the first intermission.
OSU coach Steve Rohlik said he thought the team played a solid first period, but that falling behind made it hard for the team to continue to play its game, rather than press for an immediate response.
“You never want to get behind, especially this time of year against good teams,” Rohlik said. “Good teams know how to play with the lead, and it forces you to try to do things you maybe shouldn’t be doing.”
From there, the Buckeyes found their comeback attempts beaten back by the impressive play of Minnesota’s goalie Adam Wilcox. The sophomore stopper made 30 saves, many of them at crucial moments in the game.
Rohlik said Wilcox’s impact on the Gophers’ play shouldn’t be understated.
“I think people talk about their forwards, they talk about their (defensemen), and sometimes you forget about if not the best, one of the best goaltenders in the country,” Rohlik said. “We had some point-blank chances throughout the game, and he made some great saves.”
A third Minnesota goal midway through the second period was followed almost immediately by OSU’s first tally, scored by junior forward Tanner Fritz. After sophomore forward Anthony Greco sent junior forward Max McCormick through on goal, Wilcox stopped the initial shot but not Fritz’s follow-up.
But any momentum that accompanied the OSU goal quickly dissipated when Minnesota scored twice in 21 seconds to effectively end the contest. The first came on a tip in front by Gophers redshirt-freshman forward Connor Reilly and then, after OSU freshman goalie Christian Frey was replaced by freshman goalie Matt Tomkins, Minnesota’s freshman forward Vinni Lettieri gathered the puck behind the net and shot the puck past the Buckeye goaltender.
Fritz said that the nature of Minnesota’s final two goals definitely had an impact on OSU’s psyche.
“We got (our first) goal there and it kind of changed the momentum of the game. We thought it might get us back into it,” Fritz said. “But then they scored a quick one after that and that kind of just (took) the wind out of (our) sails.”
While the loss means OSU remains in fourth place in the conference, the victory clinches a first-round bye for Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament, and coach Don Lucia said that was a task his team was focused on heading into the game.
“(Clinching a first-round bye) was on our mind,” Lucia said. “It’s the only thing we can control, making sure that nobody from behind us can creep back in and steal a top two position.”
The Buckeyes and Gophers conclude their series Saturday at 6:30 p.m.