At least once every home series, the Ohio State men's hockey team will score six goals in a game.
Saturday night, it happened for the third series in a row, and this might have been the most impressive outburst yet. Sixth-ranked Western Michigan entered Value City Arena with the third best scoring defense in the nation, but the Buckeyes top line exploded to lead the Scarlet and Gray to a 6-3 win that further bolstered the team's playoff hopes.
Alex Szczechura led the way with a hat trick – giving the surging junior nine goals in his last 14 games – and an assist, while Tanner Fritz also had a four-point night thanks to one tally and three helpers. The third member of the top line, Max McCormick, added a goal and two assists.
"We've had a lot of chemistry," Fritz said of the line after increasing his point total to 14 in the last 14 games. "I feel like we're getting the bounces now. We're really clicking as a line. That's probably the best time for us to be doing that, going into playoffs."
Ohio State now has 28 goals in its last eight games, an average of 3.50 per contest. Two of the six-goal explosions – tonight's and the one two weeks ago vs. Notre Dame – have come against defenses ranked in the top 10 of Division I.
"Once we start scoring, all the boys are cheering for you and everyone has each other's backs," Szczechura said. "It just feels really good."
Ohio State moved to 5-1-2 in its last eight games and stayed in a fourth-place tie in the CCHA with Ferris State, though the Buckeyes still have two games in hand on the Bulldogs with two weekends of league play left to go. The Buckeyes are also now just two points behind third-place Notre Dame.
Ohio State (13-12-7, 12-7-5-1) also has all but clinched a first-round bye in the league playoffs, as sixth-place Alaska is five points behind OSU and the Nanooks have only two league games left.
A crowd of 4,436 was in attendance as the Buckeyes moved to 4-0-2 in their last six home contests.
"Look at the crowd here tonight," head coach Mark Osiecki said of a night that also included the popular Script Ohio on ice promotion. "It was great. The band was great. It's a fun environment to play in front of, and it's only going to get better."
They had plenty to cheer about, especially as Szczechura helped ignite the night. He opened the game's scoring just 1:44 into the contest when he tipped in Brandon Martell's shot from the right point. Then, with Western Michigan up 3-2 in the second period, he kicked off a string of four unanswered OSU tallies by working his way from the blue line to the net before putting his own rebound past Frank Slubowski.
Szczechura – the brother of former NHL player Paul – put the cherry on top as well, finishing a 2-on-1 with Fritz in the third period with the team's sixth goal.
"It feels pretty good," he said after his second multigoal game in the last seven contests. "Anytime you can get a big win and bang in a few goals, it feels really good."
It was Ohio State's second hat trick of the year, as Ryan Dzingel had one in a 5-4 loss to Penn State on Dec. 29.
Fritz, McCormick and Darik Angeli added scores for the Buckeyes. Second-place Western Michigan (18-8-6, 14-6-4-2) entered allowing only 1.81 goals per game but was not on its game from the very beginning, and it didn't help that Slubowski had a rough go of things.
"When you don't stay humble, you get humbled, and we got humbled tonight," head coach Andy Murray said. "Give their coaches credit, they did a great job. We didn't coach well and we didn't play well, and we got it handed to us."
Justin Kovacs, David Killip and Dennis Brown scored for the Broncos, who lost for just the second time in the last eight games.
Western Michigan scored twice in a row past Brady Hjelle in the first after Szczechura's opener to take a 2-1 lead into the first intermission. Kovacs put a rebound past Hjelle – who made 22 saves – after a good save by the OSU netminder, and Killip tipped Trevor Elias' shot from the right wall in.
The Buckeyes were pretty much in the ascendency from there, though, putting 29 shots on net over the next 40 minutes to Western Michigan's 18.
"It's hard to play (for the other team) when you put a lot of pucks on net," Osiecki said. "It's hard for defensemen. I'm a former defenseman. You have to turn, you have to open up, you have to find pucks. It's very difficult to play. The strength of their team is their goalie and defensemen. They have four guys that are going to play NHL hockey. Our message was shoot, and we were very, very clear about that."
Fritz sniped a pass from McCormick over Slubowski's glove at 11:34 to tie the score and set off a run of four OSU goals in a little more than six minutes, but Western Michigan's Brown snuck a shot past Hjelle to make it 3-2 just 42 seconds later.
That was about the last positive moment for the Broncos, though, as Szczchura's power-play marker – created after Hjelle pushed the puck up for his second assist in three games – at 13:36 tied things.
McCormick backhanded a rebound into an open cage 1:08 later for the game winner before Angeli somehow snuck a shot between Slubowski and the post at 17:49 to cap Ohio State's four-goal second period.
Szczechura's third-period goal, his 10th tally of the season, was it for Slubowski, who was pulled after making 25 saves. Backup Lukas Hafner stopped all eight shots he faced.
Both teams finished 1 for 4 on the power play.
The Buckeyes are back in action next weekend with a two-game set with rival Michigan.
Martell had two assists for the Buckeyes while wearing a "C" on his jersey with co-captains Curtis Gedig (injury) and Travis Statchuk (scratch) out of the lineup. … Fritz and McCormick both finished plus-4. … Dzingel has points in nine of his last 10 games after assisting on Szczechura's second goal. … Hjelle clinched at least a share of first place in the Perani Cup, which goes to the CCHA player who earns the most points for finishing as one of each game's three stars.