As anyone who has followed the Buckeyes this year knows, that was a good thing. The young Buckeyes split two games with a Notre Dame team ranked second in the country at the time, setting OSU forward on a first half of the season that ended with Ohio State at 13-4-1, in the top five of the national polls and well ahead in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.
"We had a solid weekend there," senior co-captain Sean Duddy said. "It showed us what we can do as a team."
Just about everything has changed since that series on Oct. 15-16. Ohio State went from a young team bursting with promise to the surprise of the first half to a team that stumbled through a 1-9-4 stretch to close the season that dropped the Buckeyes from first to ninth in the CCHA.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, had just as star-crossed a season. The Fighting Irish were ranked third in the nation as late as Jan. 9 – one spot behind Ohio State – but have gone through a similar collapse, including losses in six of their last seven games.
Even the building the two teams will play in has changed. The two teams played in Notre Dame's last series in the Joyce Center before the Fighting Irish opened the new $50 million Compton Family Ice Arena.
"I think both games we played very well there," OSU head coach Mark Osiecki said. "The one thing that is going to be interesting is we're going to go into a different building. I think we'll have to get used to that quickly (at practice)."
Now, two teams who considered near locks for the NCAA tournament not even two months ago will battle in what is likely a best-of-three elimination battle Friday through Sunday in South Bend. Only Notre Dame remains in the national rankings at No. 18, and the teams are tied for that spot in the PairWise rankings that mimic the 16-team NCAA tournament selection process.
For Ohio State, the key could come down to mind-set. For much of the year, Osiecki has talked about how the Buckeyes' inexperienced team – featuring 12 true freshmen – needs to have a "young and dumb" mentality in order to avoid thinking about the pressure of the moment.
"That can definitely work in our favor," Duddy said. "It's like that thing where you're almost too naïve to be worried. It's just the only thing they know is to go out and play hard. They're not really thinking about the implications. They've not been there before so they have youthful excitement and we can harness that."
On the other hand, Osiecki is well aware of what youth means when the chips are down in college hockey. While being swept by experienced Michigan State and Miami (Ohio) teams, the Buckeyes were exposed in some ways. Osiecki could see it, and the message was driven home in postgame talks with MSU mentor Tom Anastos and Miami head coach Enrico Blasi.
"You talk to Rico, you talk to Tom Anastos, the difference in our games were maturity and immaturity," Osiecki said. "I don't think our guys are immature (people), but they haven't gone through tough situations before at the college level."
Still, Osiecki believes the team hasn't played all that bad at times. The Buckeyes (15-13-5, 11-12-5-1) have been in a number of the games they lost or tied in the recent streak, and the second-year head coach has often lauded his team's work ethic and attitude despite the string of tough results.
"We've played unbelievably well and haven't had great results," he said. "We've said it from day one – we're going to have some tremendous highs and tremendous lows with a young group. The one thing that has been so consistent every day has been how they show up and compete in practice or in the weight room. They've been tremendous."
The key will be continuing to play hard while playing the game that gave it success at the start of the season.
"You can definitely see the games where we have success are the games that we're keeping it simple and we're being more physical," Duddy said. "We're not an extremely skilled team. We have guys that can make plays, but the identity of our team is more of a hardworking group."
Even with everything that has gone wrong near the end of the season, Ohio State controls the destiny of what this team will be remembered for, and there's still time to turn it around.
"We talked about it at the beginning of the year, we talked about the only thing that really matters is playoffs, and we need to find a way to get better each and every day," Osiecki said. "I think our guys have had that mentality. I think they're really excited about this. They've been talking about that as a group, and certainly we've been stressed that."
Looking At ND
Notre Dame's slide included just a 5-10-0 record after the calendar flipped, dropping the Irish (17-16-3, 12-13-3-0) to eighth place in the league.
Offensively, Columbus Blue Jackets draft pick T.J. Tynan finished atop the CCHA with 27 assists and 40 points. Sophomore classmate Anders Lee led the squad with 15 goals. First-round NHL draft pick Riley Sheahan is next with a 9-15-24 line and Billy Maday has nine goals and 22 points.
Defense has been an issue. The Irish are 10th in the 11-team CCHA in scoring defense, and neither goaltender – Mike Johnson nor Steven Summerhays – had a save percentage better than .900.
The two teams met in the playoffs two years ago, with Ohio State sweeping Notre Dame in the first round in Columbus.