Until mid-February, the Ohio State men’s hockey team faced little adversity.
Sure, injuries forced coach Steve Rohlik to tinker with his lineup, but that didn’t stop the Buckeyes from rolling to a 19-5-4 record, a No. 3 national ranking and an insurmountable lead for the regular-season Big Ten title.
Then came a mystifying slide. Ohio State lost five of its last seven games, including a 5-1 home loss to Penn State in the Big Ten tournament semifinals on March 17.
That dropped Ohio State to a No. 3 seed in the West Region of the NCAA Tournament, where the Buckeyes will play No. 2 Denver in Fargo, North Dakota, on Friday afternoon.
Slumps can shake confidence, or they can serve as motivation. Ohio State (20-10-5) believes it will be the latter. The Penn State loss was the Buckeyes’ only game in the last three weeks. They say they’ve used their practice time to hit the reset button.
“I think we’re really relaxed,” senior forward Brendon Kearney said. “The thing I keep going back to is urgency without desperation. We know what we have to be doing to be at our best.”
Rohlik said the extended practice time has enabled his team to reinstill the structure that’s so important to its game. The long break has also allowed injured players to heal. Rohlik said this is the first time since January that his team is fully healthy.
“We know if we play our best, we’re a tough out,” he said.
Ohio State defeated Denver 5-1 in the NCAA Midwest Regional final last year. The Pioneers are among the stingiest teams in the nation defensively, allowing only 2.08 goals per game.
Ohio State has rotated goaltenders Sean Romeo and Tommy Nappier this season. Nappier played in the Big Ten tournament loss to Penn State. Rohlik said he hasn’t decided who will start against Denver.
“Both kids deserve the chance,” Rohlik said. “It’s a good problem to have. I have all the faith in the world in both goalies, but obviously I can only play one.”
The winner Friday will play No. 1 overall tournament seed St. Cloud State or American International. Rohlik said no attention has been given to a potential regional final.
“The only thing we’ve watched video on is Denver,” he said.
Two years ago, the Buckeyes came to Fargo as a No. 4 seed. Though they lost to Minnesota-Duluth in overtime, that game helped Ohio State believe it belonged on the national stage.
The Buckeyes made the Frozen Four a year ago. Before 2017, Ohio State had made the tournament only six times. Until their late-season slide, they were in line for a No. 1 seed this year.
“We didn’t play our best for all kinds of reasons,” Rohlik said. “Guys not being in the lineup, guys who were hurt. We didn’t play desperate. There are no more excuses. We just have to go out and do it now.”