As members of the Ohio State men’s hockey team filed out of Steve Cady Arena on Saturday night, there were not a whole lot of smiles to be found.
There was still some good news to be had, though.
Even after the Buckeyes lost their regular-season finale by a 4-2 to score to rival Miami – a result that allowed the third-ranked RedHawks to clinch the final Central Collegiate Hockey Association championship – some good news was provided from Ann Arbor of all places.
About a half hour after the game in Oxford went final, Michigan staved off a furious flurry from Ferris State to send their game to a shootout, a result that clinched fourth place in the CCHA standings and home ice in the quarterfinals of the league playoffs for the Buckeyes.
“It's one step for our program,” head coach Mark Osiecki said. “I think it was something that we set as a goal, and now we have to find a way to win two games.”
When the dust settled, the Buckeyes finished two points ahead of Ferris State – the defending national runner-up – and will host the Bulldogs in a best-of-three series in Columbus from March 15-17 with the winner going to the CCHA finals in Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena.
It is the first time OSU has earned a top-four finish since 2005, one year before the league switched to a format that gave the top four squads first-round playoff byes and quarterfinal home ice.
That fact shows the Buckeyes are a building program under Osiecki, and the third-year coach was pleased that his squad was able to earn the necessary three points to grab home ice with a 3-0 win over the RedHawks on Friday night.
"I give our guys a lot of credit to come down here and get three of six points on the road,” he said. “Before this weekend they had lost one time at home."
On the other side, Miami was ecstatic to clinch the title in front of a season-high 3,618 fans. The team mobbed goaltender Ryan McKay after the final buzzer before singing the school fight song at center ice and donning T-shirts in front of the roaring crowd.
“It feels good to win a championship,” said head coach Enrico Blasi, who has watched his team win three in the last eight years. “It is a big deal. The regular season championship is difficult to win because you have to be good consistently for six months and play in different buildings and go on long road trips through some sickness and injuries. If you are fortunate to be in a position to win one, it is pretty amazing.”
Senior Curtis McKenzie, who scored the opening goal for Miami, said the fact that it is the final title before the conference's 11 teams split up – with OSU going to the Big Ten and Miami to the fledgling National Collegiate Hockey Association – was significant.
“That trophy is forever ours now,” he said with a smile.
He was joined on the score sheet by Riley Barber, Blake Coleman and Cody Murphy as Miami (22-9-5, 17-7-4-4) opened a 4-0 lead on the Buckeyes that stood until the last three minutes. Craig Dalrymple and Alex Szczechura got on the board for the Buckeyes (14-15-7, 13-10-5-1).
But on the whole, it was Miami’s night, as the RedHawks played like a team that knew it could do something special on its Senior Night.
“It was do or die tonight for a championship,” senior captain Steven Spinell said. “That’s a game everyone dreams about playing, and everyone rose to the occasion.”
Miami buzzed from nearly the opening faceoff, as Ohio State goaltender Brady Hjelle had to make standout saves in the early going against Alex Wideman, Austin Czarnik and Coleman.
Finally the RedHawks got on the board 10:40 into the game, as 10 seconds into a power play, McKenzie found a rebound and front and lifted it over Hjelle – though replays showed the flailing OSU netminder might have knocked it back into his own cage.
“It was nice to get one behind the goalie right away,” McKenzie said. “We were already going, but that gave the boys that much more confidence.”
Miami doubled its advantage with the crucial tally with 6:49 left in the second. With the teams skating 4 on 4, Barber skated into the Ohio State zone, cut inside defenseman Clark Cristofoli with little resistance to get one-on-one with Hjelle and backhanded the puck past the OSU goalie.
“I was shooting the puck the whole night coming down the wing, so I kind of set up the guy to think that I was going to shoot, then I went inside him,” Barber said. “I was lucky enough to put it in the back of the net. It was a huge goal for us.”
Ohio State had a chance to get back in the game early in the third period when Miami freshman Sean Kuraly was given a five-minute penalty for butt-ending and Garrett Kennedy took a charging penalty to give the Buckeyes a full two-minute 5-on-3, but the Buckeyes couldn’t convert.
Ryan Dzingel had a pair of shots turned aside by Miami goalie Ryan McKay and another blocked by Spinell, while Dalrymple had a shot blocked and another sail wide.
“The power play has to come up with something there,” Osiecki said. “Obviously I give credit to (Miami). It was a hostile environment, it was a playoff environment. They played well after losing last night.”
Just 33 seconds after Kuraly’s penalty was over, the RedHawks made it 3-0 when Coleman scored into an open net after Hjelle came out of his crease to clear the puck but couldn’t get it fully out of harm’s way.
Murphy put the exclamation on things with 4:10 to go, roofing a shot past Hjelle’s blocker to make it 4-0.
Things almost got out of hand 30 seconds later as all 10 players on the ice engaged in a donnybrook following a scrum in front of Hjelle’s net, but no disqualifications were given among the penalties to four Miami players and three Buckeyes.
Dalrymple put a slap shot by McKay with 2:13 to go and then fed Szczechura for an easy stuff with 18.4 seconds left, but the comeback was too little, too late for the Scarlet and Gray.
“They just came out with a lot more jump,” Ohio State sophomore Tanner Fritz said. “It was a big night for them. It was their Senior Night. That’s really what it came down to. They had more will than us tonight, and we just didn’t get the win.”
Shortly after Fritz said those words, the Buckeyes headed back to Columbus. The good news is, two weeks from now, they'll still be there.
Fritz finished atop the CCHA in scoring in league games with 32 points, becoming the third Buckeye to win that crown after Paul Pooley (1984) and Hugo Boisvert (1998). He also led the league with 23 assists. … Barber, on the other hand, broke a tie with Fritz to win the overall scoring crown with 36 points. … Steve Cady, the first Miami coach and the namesake of the arena, and Lloyd Goggin – a former Miami VP who spearheaded construction of the school’s original rink – were honored before the game. … Ohio State had scored at least three goals in the previous four games, and Fritz and Max McCormick had point streaks of four and five games, respectively, end.