Ohio State men’s hockey coach Steve Rohlik and his Buckeyes are primed to make the trip up to St. Paul, Minnesota, for the third Big Ten hockey tournament, beginning on Thursday.
The last time the tournament was hosted at the Xcel Energy Center was in 2014. All the Scarlet and Gray did that year was beat Michigan State 2-1 in overtime, stun No. 1 Minnesota in front of its home crowd in the semifinals and come 6:52 from an NCAA tournament berth, as they held a 4-2 lead before everything fell apart and they lost to No. 6 Wisconsin 5-4 in overtime in the title game.
With the way the second half of the season has gone, there’s plenty of reason to believe OSU has more than an outside chance to win the tournament and clinch its first NCAA bid since 2009.
Why OSU can win
OSU heads into St. Paul more confident than Kanye West and his 2020 presidential campaign. The Buckeyes haven’t lost in their last seven games (5-0-2) and have dumped their abysmal 0-7 start to the season into the Olentangy River. After entering the second half of the season 3-11, they have gone 10-6-2, with six of those wins coming against top 20 opponents: Boston College, Cornell, Michigan and Penn State.
Looking at the rest of the field
The Buckeyes’ opponent on Thursday is scheduled to be Michigan State, who they went 2-1-1 against this season.
You can bet that, like 26 of their 34 games this season, Thursday’s matchup will be decided by two goals or less. In fact, the series this year was so close that they scored just 11 goals apiece against each other.
If they win they would be set to play No. 20 Minnesota, who beat them in all four games this year.
But here’s the thing: OSU could’ve beaten them each time, as three of the games went to overtime, and the last game in Columbus ended up 4-3 favoring the Golden Gophers in regulation. On Dec. 4 in Minneapolis, OSU held a 2-0 lead before falling 3-2 in overtime. The next night, the Scarlet and Gray tied the game with less than a minute left, something they’ve excelled at this season, before falling again in the extra frame. On Feb. 12, OSU held a 3-2 lead at home before again losing in overtime.
The only question remaining is if the Scarlet and Gray can finally break down the wall against these guys.
As far as the other three teams go on the other half of the bracket, OSU split the season series with No. 19 Penn State, went 2-0-2 against Wisconsin and recently swept No. 7 Michigan over a weekend for the first time since 2011, taking the season series 2-1-1.
Opposing goaltenders or six-foot slices of swiss cheese?
During this seven-game unbeaten streak beginning on Feb. 20 with a 7-4 win at Penn State, the Buckeyes are averaging 5.2 goals per game. At the beginning of the year when they went 0-7, their offense averaged a paltry 1.7 goals per game and only got slightly better by the winter break when they averaged 2.7, helping them marginally improve their record to 3-11.
Rohlik and the Buckeyes channeled their inner Undertaker immediately upon their return on Dec. 28, as his crew has lit the lamp an average of 4.2 times per game, making it currently the ninth-best offense in the nation.
Junior forward and co-captain Nick Schilkey has been on an absolute tear lately. He has points in seven of the last eight games, compiling six goals and 10 assists in that span. He is fourth in the Big Ten in scoring with 41 points and leads the team in goals, as well, with 19.
He was named an All-Big Ten second team member on Monday.
His classmate in David Gust has had a breakout season to remember. He held a 15-game point streak at one point and has only been held pointless in seven games this season.
All-Big Ten freshman team member Mason Jobst has been a great story, as well. Not only has he stayed healthy this year, but he has emerged as the Buckeyes’ top faceoff man, winning over 50 percent of his draws while putting up 28 points, which third among freshmen in the conference.
They know the road to the promised land
It was the same place, almost two years ago.
The Buckeyes had it locked up.
Although it seems like yesterday and players have graduated since then, OSU still has 10 players from that 2013-14 team, including the guy who almost carried them to the NCAA tournament, junior goalie Christian Frey.
Drew Brevig, Gust, Anthony Greco, first-team All-Big Ten member Josh Healey, Tyler Lundey and Schilkey all played in that title game against Wisconsin.
This season has been quite a learning experience for one of the youngest teams in college hockey. After that 0-7 start, this group has been playing for this weekend, and they have peaked at the right moment.
Rohlik has found consistency in his top forward lines and his defensive pairings over the past few weeks, and there’s no reason to expect major changes come Thursday.
OSU has beaten the best teams, hung around with other top teams like the defending national champion in Providence, and has lost to a much-less-talented Mercyhurst team across this season.
Anything can happen with the Buckeyes.
If they win this weekend, don’t be surprised.
If they lose, you can bet they won’t go down without a fight.
OSU’s tournament journey is set to begin Thursday against Michigan State. Puck drop is scheduled for 8:30 p.m.