ST. PAUL, Minn. — Just because three Big Ten men’s hockey teams — Ohio State, Michigan and first-year adjunct member Notre Dame — are in the Frozen Four on Thursday at the Xcel Energy Center, don’t think the Buckeyes have conference pride on their minds in their semifinal against Minnesota-Duluth.
“We're focused on ourselves, so I would say it's a lot of Ohio State pride at this point,” junior defenseman Sasha Larocque said Wednesday. “Obviously it's great for the conference to have three teams in the Frozen Four, but … we only want to go out and play our game, play the way we can, and kind of have the chips fall from there.”
Led by regular-season and conference tournament champion Notre Dame, which takes on Michigan in the other semifinal, at least one Big Ten team will make the final Saturday — two, if the Buckeyes advance. It’s just the fifth time that three teams from the same conference made the Frozen Four.
“I think it's cool for you guys to write about that kind of stuff; it's cool for us to read about it,” goaltender Sean Romeo said. “But honestly, in the locker room, we don't care about who is here. We only care about us, and that's about it.”
Besides, the Buckeyes, in just their second appearance in the Frozen Four — the other was in 1998 — have a score to settle with Minnesota-Duluth of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. The Bulldogs beat the Buckeyes 3-2 in overtime in an NCAA Tournament first-round game last year.
“It was the first time we made the tournament in nine years, I think we were a little blinded by the lights and all that (early),” junior forward and captain Mason Jobst said. “But we played really well (later on) and took them to overtime.
“It’s nice to have a chance again this year to play the same team. Obviously, they’ve got a lot of turnover and a lot of freshmen this year and stuff, but they wouldn’t be here if they weren’t a great team. And I think we’re excited to get another chance at ’em.”
Duluth captain Karson Kuhlman understands that sentiment, though he pointed out that the Buckeyes were a goal from ending the Bulldogs’ season, too.
“When your season gets ended, I know that feeling, and you want to get back at the team that did it,” Kuhlman said. “Obviously they get another shot here.”
Although Duluth (23-16-3), with plenty of youth on the roster, is not the same team it was a year ago, Ohio State (26-9-5) also is different. It has heeded coach Steve Rohlik’s demand of a “five men connected” approach that has improved play on the defensive end without taking away a lot on offense.
“Last year they were maybe a little bit looser defensively, so their system, what they have employed, has worked,” Duluth coach Scott Sandelin said. “You look at it, they’re barely giving up just over two goals a game. Their penalty killing is good, No. 1 (in the nation). … Those guys play a little bit more complete game on both sides of the puck.”
The coaches have their own connection. Rohlik was an assistant under Sandelin for 10 years. Although Rohlik emphasized those ties should not be the headline, it is interesting how their teams’ similar styles have put them on the big stage.
“They’re a lot like us. Their work ethic, they’re relentless. Their speed,” Rohlik said. “They’re here for a reason. … They’re going to go 60 minutes. If it goes longer than that, they’re going to go longer than that. We’ve got to be at our best. We’ve got to play our best hockey game.”