Ohio State wanted to do something that hadn’t been done in a while this weekend.
That happened, but it didn’t go the way the Buckeyes had planned.
Playing with a chance to nearly clinch a top-four finish in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association for the first time since 2005, the Buckeyes instead watched Michigan earn its first two-game series sweep in Columbus since February 1991.
After Friday’s 5-3 win, the Wolverines finished the job Saturday night by scoring three unanswered third-period goals to earn a 6-3 victory in front of a Value City Arena season-high crowd of 9,278 on Senior Night.
“It’s disappointing,” head coach Mark Osiecki said. “The goals were breakdowns that haven’t happened all year. I don’t know where that came from. I think it was a combination of the weekend that came at us and a combination of Michigan’s talent level.”
With the sweep, Ohio State’s playoff possibilities became more clear. The Buckeyes inability to earn points on the weekend kept them tied with Ferris State for fourth place in the CCHA, and the squads are now locked into either fourth or fifth in the final standings after next weekend’s games.
Ohio State (13-14-7, 12-9-5-1) will trip to rival Miami (Ohio) while Ferris State will travel to Michigan, and whichever team earns more points will host the other a three-game CCHA quarterfinal series March 15-17 after a first-round bye.
“It would have been a big weekend for us to take a few points, but we have to look at the positives with the first-round (bye) clinched,” senior defenseman Brandon Martell said. “We have to do what we can to get ready and prepared coming into the playoffs.”
Senior Night didn’t go as planned for the Buckeyes, as senior goaltender Brady Hjelle, who didn’t get much help all weekend, was pulled midway through the third after allowing five goals on 28 shots. Martell finished minus-3 and had a crucial turnover while Devon Krogh was minus-2. Senior forward Alex Carlson – who played on the fourth line but did not have any stats – and goaltender Jeff Michael were also honored.
The major bright spot was a three-point night for OSU sophomore Tanner Fritz, who has nine points in the last three games and 19 in his last 13 contests. Max McCormick added a goal and an assist.
“Fritzie is on a whole different level,” Osiecki said. “I think Max and Alex (Szczechura) complement him very nicely.”
On the other side, Michigan improved to 12-18-2 (9-15-2-2 CCHA). Phil Di Giuseppe scored twice, while Justin Selman and Alex Guptill each had a goal and an assist. Defenseman Jon Merrill had three assists and was plus-5, while Lee Moffie was plus-6.
“I told their coach that was probably the best weekend of hockey Michigan has played all year,” Michigan head coach Red Berenson said. “For whatever reason, it was a good weekend for us. A lot of little things – the penalty kill was good, the power play was good, our seconds periods were good, and our third period tonight was one of the better ones we’ve had all year.”
That was a bit of an understatement, as the Wolverines scored thrice to break a 3-all tie while allowing only four Ohio State shots on goal.
Guptill earned the winner 5:25 into the period, as he deked through one Ohio State player, juked around another and slipped the puck past Hjelle from close range.
“I kind of felt (a defender) come off my back, and as soon as he came at me, he came a little bit too hard,” said Guptill, who had three goals on the weekend. “I put it through his legs. Coach was telling me to go hard to the net, so I went hard to the net from there and put it on net. Good things happen when you go to the net.”
Andrew Sinelli roofed a shot over Hjelle with 8:40 to go to make it 5-3, just 11 seconds after he came out of the penalty box. Osiecki responded by replacing Hjelle with freshman Collin Olson.
“It’s hard,” Osiecki said. “As a staff, we’re not trying to show him up at all. At what point do you feel badly for him? He’s been rock solid for us and giving us an opportunity (every night). He didn’t have his ‘A’ game tonight by any means. I just don’t want to leave him out there dangling in the wind.”
Di Giuseppe iced things with an empty-net goal with 4:04 left, just eight seconds after a Michigan faceoff win in the Ohio State offensive zone.
The first two periods started in entertaining fashion but became increasingly buttoned-down as time went on. Ohio State’s top line of Fritz, McCormick and Szczechura tallied three times while Michigan earned a trio of goals soft enough that Osiecki compared it to Christmas on ice.
Fritz opened the scoring 7:58 into the game on the power play, as Craig Dalrymple did a great job of keeping the puck in the zone and sending it to Fritz in the slot for a quick shot over the glove of U-M goalie Steve Racine.
But quickly Ohio State started showing some defensive-zone struggles with junior Curtis Gedig and sophomore Al McLean out with injuries. Krogh’s attempted clear was intercepted and Guptill found Copp on the backside for an easy stuff past Hjelle just 21 seconds after Fritz’s opening tally.
The Wolverines made it 2-1 at 12:05 as Martell passed the puck right in front of the net to Selman, who didn’t miss from no more than a few feet out.
“We haven’t seen two games like that by us all year,” Osiecki said after OSU gave up 11 goals in the series. “That’s not OSU hockey. That’s not how we’ve played all year.”
Fritz tied things, though, at 14:58 of the first, skating all the way from the left corner to the center point before unleashing a slap shot past Racine, who was tied up in front with Szczechura.
Michigan struck 2:59 into the second to make it 3-2 when Di Giuseppe tried to center the puck from below the goal line only to see it carom off the skate of Ohio State defenseman Sam Jardine, off Hjelle’s knee and into the net.
McCormick answered at 5:16, completing a nice give-and-go with Fritz after a turnover by Mac Bennett by firing a one-timer through Racine’s legs.
The Buckeyes could have taken the lead later in the second, but Racine used his blocker to deny a breakaway by Fritz and then made two stops on McCormick as the Buckeyes had a 3-on-1.
Those misses proved crucial when Michigan won the third period, but Osiecki expects his team to bounce back with home ice on the line next weekend.
“This team is resilient,” he said. “This team always has a good response.”