In less than 24 hours, Michigan will be skating into Columbus for a couple of men’s hockey games against Ohio State, so don’t be surprised if you see the Brutus signal shining in the sky tonight in preparation.
After all, the Buckeyes and Wolverines could face off in marbles and there would be a palpable thirst for blood. The rivalry forever breathes fire.
“Both teams know it,” said Steve Rohlik, in his fourth season as OSU men’s hockey coach.
All the usual extra passion promises to exist when the two-game series begins Friday at 7 p.m., complete with the Ohio State band performing Script Ohio on the ice at Value City Arena. Pep talks won’t be necessary that night or before the 5 p.m. game Saturday.
“It’s always exciting to play them,” said OSU senior captain Nick Schilkey, a native of Marysville, Michigan, about an hour north of Detroit.
However, the importance of this two-game series against Michigan goes beyond the rivalry’s customary parameters for the Buckeyes. OSU is considered on the bubble for a possible NCAA tournament at-large bid with six regular-season games remaining.
“Every point matters right now, every single game,” said sophomore winger Mason Jobst, who leads OSU with 40 points (14 goals, 26 assists). “We can’t afford to give up any points. The race is so tight right now.”
Ohio State, seeking its first NCAA tournament bid since 2009, has won two straight games and four of its past five to sit in third place in the Big Ten at 16-8-6 overall, 7-6-1 in league play.
The Buckeyes’ 23 points in the Big Ten trails league-leading Minnesota (33) and second-place Wisconsin (30). Top two finishers earn first-round byes in the Big Ten tournament, set for March 16-18 at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
“We’re in a decent spot, but I think we could be a lot better,” Rohlik said.
The winner of the Big Ten tournament earns one of six automatic bids into the 16-team NCAA tournament, which the Buckeyes have played in only once since 2006. Their fallback plan is one of the 10 at-large spots.
OSU is No. 12 in the latest USCHO rankings. The PairWise rankings released Wednesday had the Buckeyes at No. 13, with ESPN projecting them to be a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament.
“To me every game is a playoff game at this point,” Rohlik said. “You’ve got six games left and they’re all important from a short-term goal of winning a hockey game to try to keep a winning streak going, to trying to catch your ultimate goal at the end of the year. It all comes down to winning hockey games. Right now, Friday is pretty important.”
OSU is enjoying its best season under Rohlik because of offensive firepower. The Buckeyes lead the NCAA in power-play percentage (29.6) and are third in the nation with an average of 4.1 goals per game.
“We got to get better defensively,” Rohlik said while referring to a 5-4 loss and 6-5 win at Michigan on Feb. 3 and 4, respectively.
Rohlik wants to see fewer needless penalties from his club, but he likes the tenacity shown in two one-goal wins last weekend at Michigan State. OSU is trending upward.
“I still think our best hockey is yet to come,” Rohlik said. “I think that’s the exciting part.”