Ohio State ascended to the top of the men’s hockey national rankings before it played a game this season.
The stay at No. 1 didn’t last long.
“I don’t think we handled it great early,” coach Steve Rohlik said.
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But now the Buckeyes are rolling heading into games Friday and Saturday against Notre Dame at Value City Arena. After a 3-2-1 start, Ohio State (15-5-4 overall, 8-3-3 Big Ten) has won 12 of the past 18 games in regulation and picked up two wins in three-on-three overtime.
“We thought it was going to be very easy for us,” junior defenseman Wyatt Ege said. “We thought we were going to go win — the No. 1 team and everybody is saying how good you’re going to be. We realize now we have to earn it. We have to prove it every night.”
They definitely will have to prove it this weekend. The Buckeyes and Fighting Irish split a November series in South Bend, Indiana. Ohio State is in first place in the Big Ten, and Notre Dame (14-8-3, 7-6-2) is in second. A series sweep would put the Buckeyes in commanding position to play host to the Big Ten tournament.
Last year, Notre Dame, which won the conference regular-season title in its first year in the Big Ten, edged the Buckeyes in overtime in the playoff finals. Both teams reached the Frozen Four, the national semifinals.
“I think we’re learning to be a more consistent hockey team,” Rohlik said. “People forget that we lost six seniors, so this is a different personality, a different team.”
Rohlik, in his sixth year, now has a team capable of winning in several ways. Ohio State is potent offensively, led by senior Mason Jobst, who has 14 goals and 16 assists in 24 games. Tanner Laczynski has 25 points, though he is day-to-day with an injury.
The Buckeyes also are sound defensively, with two quality goaltenders. Veteran Sean Romeo has gotten the nod on Fridays this year. Sophomore Tommy Nappier has been even better statistically with a save percentage of .940.
“We can do it all,” Ege said. “We can puck protect down low. We can beat you on the rush. We can beat you on the power play. A little bit of everything. It’s nice.”
The Buckeyes will be tested by a solid Notre Dame team that features star goaltender Cale Morris.
“He’s very technically sound,” Buckeyes forward Brendon Kearney said. “He does a good job of knowing where the net is at all times and being square to the puck. He really doesn’t give you second chances.”
The Buckeyes are at a point where they believe that if they play their best, that will be enough. Having reached the Frozen Four a year ago, Ohio State won’t be satisfied with just that.
“Two years ago, we made it into the (NCAA) tournament,” Ege said. “It was like, ‘Whoa, big deal, we accomplished something.’ Last year, you’re like, ‘Wow, we actually won a few games and are in the Frozen Four.’ Now it’s like, ‘We’ve got to do this. We’ve got to win it (all).’ ”
But that’s down the road. The Buckeyes aren’t looking past this weekend, as revealing as it might be.
“I think (we’re) understanding we have to be at our best every night,” Rohlik said. “We have to practice right Monday through Thursday. If you’re not at your best, you’re going to get beat. That’s the name of the game in college hockey.”