Fourth Place On Line As OSU Visits Miami

A lot of storylines are converging as the Ohio State men's hockey team finishes the regular season (and plays its last-ever CCHA regular-season games) this weekend at in-state rival Miami. Important playoff positioning and a couple of intriguing matchups are also on the docket as the teams play a pair of televised games.

Not picking up crucial points in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association race last weekend hurt the Ohio State men's hockey team.

What might have hurt more was the fact the Buckeyes got away from their identity.

Ohio State gave up 11 goals while dropping both games of a two-game series at home vs. rival Michigan. For a team that has been among the nation's best in preventing goals all season, the performance was jarring.

"I don't know the statistics, but the last time we let in 11 goals in a weekend couldn't have been anytime recently," freshman defenseman Sam Jardine said.

In fact, the most goals OSU had allowed in a weekend all season before that was eight – and that came the first weekend of the season at Minnesota Duluth. The last time OSU had given up as many as 11 in a two-game set, the team ceded 14 while being swept during the 2009-10 season at Ferris State.

So yes, the Buckeyes were disappointed with the defensive performance against the Wolverines.

"For the better part of the year, we've really taken pride in our goals against," Jardine said. "We know to be successful, it's somewhere around three goals against maximum, especially with playoffs around the corner. It's all about bearing down and being tough to play against. We have to get back to that."

Ohio State can get redemption this weekend as it finishes the regular season with two games at rival Miami (Ohio) in Oxford, with tonight's game starting at 7:30 and tomorrow's at 7. Both games will be televised on Time Warner Sports Channel (311/1311 HD) and tonight's is on Sports Time Ohio as well.

The RedHawks can certainly fill up the net if given the chance with U.S. World Juniors forwards Riley Barber and Sean Kuraly as well as the high-scoring Austin Czarnik on the squad. But the Buckeyes have a good defensive record against Miami this year, limiting the RedHawks to five goals in three prior games, though OSU has only a 0-2-1 mark in those contests.

In each contest vs. Miami, the Buckeyes' defense was much tighter than it was against the Wolverines, when breakdowns all across the ice – from bad passes right in front of the net to mistakes that led to odd-man rushes – allowed a skilled Michigan team to pile up the goals.

"I think taking care of our D zone has to be No. 1," associate head coach Steve Rohlik said. "I think we've gotten away with that a few times, and this weekend we paid the price and we left (goaltender Brady Hjelle) out to hang there a little bit.

"We have to get back to playing tight in our own end, play Ohio State hockey. That doesn't mean we want to win 2-1. That does mean we want to get back to not giving up as many opportunities."

The Buckeyes should be helped by the potential return of junior co-captain Curtis Gedig, a defenseman who has missed six of the last seven games with an injury. Ohio State has also gone back to putting its nose to the grindstone to be ready for the RedHawks.

"We've worked in practice just working on first-pass breakouts, being more crisp that way, and then also we've had meetings with the defensive corps about being harder to play against, being more aware of everything that is around you and helping each other out," Jardine said.

Home Ice On Line
Both Ohio State and Miami are each locked into one of two spots in the CCHA standings, but there is still a lot on the line in this weekend's games.

For Ohio State, the Buckeyes will finish either fourth or fifth in the league's last go-round. OSU is tied with Ferris State with 42 points for fourth right now; the team that earns more points this weekend will host the other in the quarterfinals of the CCHA playoffs on March 15-17.

Home ice is always key in playoff hockey, so the Buckeyes definitely want to outdo the defending national runner-up Bulldogs, who face Michigan.

"This is what the dry land is for in the summer, the two-hour practices," Jardine said. "This is what it's all coming down to."

Miami, on the other hand, is locked into either first or second in the CCHA. The RedHawks have a five-point lead on second-place Western Michigan and need just a single win to clinch their third crown in the last eight years.

"We're playing one of the better teams in the country," Rohlik said. "They're fighting to win a league title, and that's a pretty big thing. We have to get refocused here, go down there and try to get some points.

"We'd love to be able to play here at home in the playoffs. We've played (Miami) three times and it's been pretty close all three games. We have to somehow find a way to be on the other end of that."

Scoring Title On Line
One other thing is up for grabs as this heated in-state rivalry stages its final CCHA series ever.

The league's overall and conference-only scoring titles will be decided between the two teams as well.

When it comes to all games, Miami's Barber leads all scorers. The Washington Capitals draft pick has 34 points on the year thanks to 14 goals and 20 assists. He's being chased by two Buckeyes and one RedHawk, as OSU's Ryan Dzingel (14 goals, 18 assists) and Tanner Fritz (10-22) and Miami's Czarnik (11-21) are on 32 points.

In CCHA-only games, Fritz leads the league with 30 points and 21 assists, while Barber has a 11-17-28 line, Dzingel is at 10-17-27 and Czarnik boasts 25 points (eight goals, 17 assists).

Fritz has jumped into the top spot thanks to a standout February in which he earned CCHA Player of the Month honors. The sophomore from Grande Prairie, Alberta, had 12 points in the month, including four goals and five assists in the last three games.

OSU head coach Mark Osiecki said Fritz was on a different level after he had two goals and an assist in the team's loss last Saturday to Michigan, but the player isn't eating up all the individual accolades.

"I have to give credit to my linemates," Fritz said of Max McCormick and Alex Szczechura. "Playing with Max, we have good chemistry. I love playing with him, but he's a good player. He's easy to play with, and we've been playing with (Szczechura). We love playing with him. He's really smart and he reads the ice."

While Fritz was named the league's player of the month in February, Miami's Ryan McKay was named the top goaltender. The freshman was 4-1-0 with a 1.20 goals-against average and .961 save percentage.

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