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Men’s hockey: Success at Wisconsin, in Big Ten tournament vital for Buckeyes’ NCAA hopes

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Ohio State sophomore forward John Wiitala enters the faceoff circle against Michigan on Feb. 25. Credit: Alexa Mavrogianis | Photo Editor

Prior to taking the ice this past weekend, Ohio State men’s hockey coach Steve Rohlik said his team is at a point in the season where every game is a “must-win,” and he hopes the Scarlet and Gray can put together a string of wins going into the conference tournament in order to secure a spot in the NCAA tournament.

After splitting their final two home series of the 2016-2017 regular season with Michigan and Michigan State, however, the No. 15 Buckeyes (18-10-6, 9-8-1-1) are on the outside looking in on the postseason as they approach the most important week of their season.

OSU currently sits in the No. 17 spot of the weekly PairWise rankings, which provide a statistical approximation in which the NCAA selection committee decides which teams get at-large bids to the 16-team NCAA tournament. This is the first time since early February, when they ranked 20th, that Rohlik’s side finds itself out of the top 16.

Additionally, the Scarlet and Gray have one final series of the regular season, as they travel to the Kohl Center in Madison, Wisconsin, this weekend to take on No. 16 Wisconsin Friday and Saturday night.

This will mark the second series of the season featuring the Badgers and the Buckeyes, with Wisconsin sweeping the first back in late January with a 3-1 win at the Schottenstein Center, and a 3-2 overtime victory at Madison Square Garden.

Despite being ranked below OSU in the USCHO.com poll, Wisconsin currently rests in a tie with Notre Dame for the No. 13 spot in the PairWise rankings. That said, the two conference clashes on the road with the Badgers could prove to be the most crucial of the season.

As it stands now, the Buckeyes must prevent a sweep by the Badgers in the Kohl Center Saturday night in order to keep their at-large bid aspirations alive heading into the conference tournament next week. Ideally, a sweep of Wisconsin would surely lock in Rohlik’s side for the program’s first NCAA berth since 2009.

However, in case of a third-straight split series for OSU, the Scarlet and Gray likely will enter the Big Ten tournament as the No. 4 seed, where they would be virtually guaranteed to meet the Wolverines for a fifth time this season.

If this happens, the Buckeyes must reach at least the semifinals of the conference tournament in order to have a chance at an at-large bid into the 16-team bracket. A first round exit will surely mean the end of the season for OSU, but a win in the opener would mean another possible matchup with the Wisconsin Badgers in the tournament semifinals.

Collectively, an appearance in the Big Ten tournament final four would put the Buckeyes on the edge of the NCAA tournament. However, reaching or winning the conference championship will give the Scarlet and Gray a chance to make a run at the program’s first Frozen Four since the 1997-1998 season.

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