The No. 17 Buckeyes have a home-and-home series with No. 15 Miami (Ohio), with major implications on the line. With 26 conference games and four-plus months of the season in the books, both teams are fighting for a bye in the first round of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association playoffs as well as jostling for NCAA tournament position.
"Everyone plays for the end of the year," OSU senior goaltender Cal Heeter said.
The intense rivals are separated by just three points in the CCHA standings, with Miami (19-13-2, 13-11-4-2) holding down fifth place – the last spot that gets a first-round bye – with 42 points. Ohio State sits back in seventh with 39 after having posted a 15-11-5 (11-10-5-1) mark complete with an 11-game winless streak to start 2012. The top five times receive a first-round bye, while squads 6-8 will host teams 9-11 in series next weekend.
The teams are just as tight when it comes to the PairWise standings that determine the NCAA tournament field. Miami's four-game winning streak has moved the RedHawks to 11th, while Ohio State sits 13th, on the bubble for the 16-team field.
And then there's the Ohio Cup, BSB's traveling trophy given each year to the team in the Buckeye State with the best record in play amongst one another. Miami has four points and Ohio State has two, with the Buckeyes looking to defend their title with some wins this weekend.
"There's no two ways to put it, it's a huge weekend for both teams," OSU co-captain Sean Duddy said.
The teams play at 6 p.m. Friday in Oxford, with the game carried live across the country on CBS Sports Network. The regular-season finale for each is back in Columbus on Saturday night at 7 p.m.
The squads split the first series this year, with Miami taking a 5-3 win in Columbus on Dec. 9 that snapped the Buckeyes' 11-game unbeaten streak. Ohio State won the rematch in Oxford a night later on Chad Niddery's overtime goal.
"You guys see it on the ice, it's a big rivalry," Duddy said. "The crowds are really good both places. You have people here that are Miami fans, you have people that go to Miami who are Ohio State fans. It's a great rivalry and the games are always fun."
There's already enough to play for going into this weekend for both squads, but on top of the whole situation, there's the fact that both squads will be honoring their seniors this weekend.
Miami will fete 10 seniors after Friday night's game, while Ohio State will do the same for four seniors before the final contest.
"Saturday night will be fun," said co-captain Cory Schneider, who will be honored along with Heeter, Duddy and Danny Dries. "It'll be a good atmosphere here. It's going to be our rival. It's going to be fun."
The gestures on both sides will be much appreciated for those who gave so much to each of their programs, but they will also perhaps add some pressure on a night in which the games are so important.
"It's very emotional," OSU assistant coach Steve Rohlik said. "It puts in perspective that the end is near. You have to look at the positive of what they've done, what they've accomplished here both as an athlete and as a student. The focus at hand has to come from us, say, ‘All right guys, here it is, learn from it, go out there, understand you're here in front of our fans, but when you step back in this locker room, you have to have a focus at hand, and that's win a hockey game.' "
In fact, Ohio State hasn't won on Senior Night since a 6-5 win against Michigan in 2007. On the other hand, Ohio State ruined Miami's ceremonies three years ago, posting a 6-2 victory.
"All week you just try to stay in the moment," Schneider said. "Focus on every day, focus on practice. Saturday night you just try to stay focused on the task at hand. It's a big game for us. It shouldn't be too hard to lose focus against a team like Miami."
While Heeter, Duddy and Schneider are all but assured of being in the lineup, there are some doubts about Dries. The New Hampshire transfer, who has been at OSU the last three seasons, injured his ankle Jan. 28 at Lake Superior State, then earned a team suspension shortly thereafter for a violation of team rules.
Dries said the suspension was related to missing a rehab assignment. The suspension is now over, as he rejoined the team last week, but his status related to the ankle injury is still up in the air.
"If it were up to me I'd like to play this weekend, but we'll see," said Dries, who said he has practiced some this week and the decision will come down to whether it's about pain tolerance or whether he can actually injure the ankle more.
A Team In Need
The Buckeyes would be glad to get Dries back as the team's goal-scoring has suffered at times since the calendar flipped to 2012.
Ohio State has been shut out twice and scored 2.08 goals per contest in that 12-game span, while Dries is second on the team with 12 goals and third with 21 points.
"It's frustrating not to be out there," Dries said. "I'd like to hopefully be able to get in."
The scoring punch has amped up of late, though. OSU has 15 goals in the last five games, largely on the strength of freshmen Max McCormick, Tanner Fritz and Ryan Dzingel. McCormick has eight goals and seven assists in the last 12 games, while Dzingel and Fritz each have a 4-5-9 mark in the previous eight contests.
The problem for a while was that only those players were scoring, but they got some help in the team's last games Feb. 10-11 at Western Michigan. Schneider scored his first goal of the year in the series opener, then junior Alex Carlson – who entered with just one tally on the year – had tying and winning goals in the third period as OSU snapped its winless streak.
"It's the time of year where we need goals from guys that aren't always scoring," Schneider said. "Carly's two goals were huge, two goals in the last five minutes. That's big. This time of year, that's exactly what you need."
One focus will be getting sophomore Chris Crane, the team's leading scorer, and freshmen Darik Angeli and Nick Oddo turned around. Crane has just one point, an assist, in the last seven games, Angeli has just two points in that span and Oddo had three goals in four nights when he tallied Dec. 30 but hasn't potted one since.
Back In The Swing
Ohio State finished its trip to Kalamazoo two weeks ago in fourth place but fell three spots last week while enjoying – or at least living through – an open week in the league slate.
On one hand, the Buckeyes would have preferred to have been playing, especially coming off the win against the Broncos that snapped an 0-7-4 streak.
On the other, the Buckeyes got a chance to rest a bit heading into what they hope will be a deep playoff run.
"It would have been nice to have had games, trying to keep that streak going, but at the same time, I don't think it's a negative thing that we had time off," Duddy said. "Sometimes it's good to get a win, get the confidence back, get some chemistry back as a team and get excited to play again going into playoffs."
The coaching staff did its best to keep the team on the ball, staging practices Monday, Wednesday and Friday of the off week and also finding time for a team bonding session at a local bowling alley as well.
"We took a few days off last week, were right back at it on Monday, and the guys have been good so far this week," Rohlik said.
Coming off a two-game sweep of Notre Dame, Miami is second in the CCHA and fifth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing only 2.15 goals per game. … Senior goaltender Connor Knapp is second in the country with a 1.65 goals-against average. He has allowed one or zero goals in nine of his last 11 games. … The RedHawks lead the league in penalty minutes, but they help make up for that fact with a penalty kill that places second at 85.3 percent. … Junior forward Reilly Smith leads the CCHA by a wide margin with 23 goals, a total that is second in the country behind Colgate's Austin Smith (26). … Ohio State hasn't been to Miami's Steve Cady Arena since ending the 2009-10 season there with a CCHA quarterfinal loss to the RedHawks in a best-of-three series. … Columbus Blue Jackets draftees Will Weber and Trent Vogulhuber are on the Miami roster.