There’s no doubt, this is big time.
There’s also no doubt the Buckeyes haven’t been here in quite some time.
The Ohio State hockey team is hosting Ferris State this weekend – with the best-of-three series facing off tonight through Sunday at 7 p.m. – in the quarterfinals of the last Central Collegiate Hockey Association tournament at the OSU Ice Rink with a trip to Joe Louis Arena on the line.
It’s Ohio State’s first CCHA quarterfinal series since 2010 and the first time the Buckeyes have played at home with a trip to the Joe on the line since 2005, but the squad isn’t necessarily worried about that as they face last year’s national runner-up.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been in a playoff run like this, but you just have to take every day step by step,” said OSU sophomore Tanner Fritz, the CCHA scoring champion. “You have to be ready. Playoff hockey is a whole different game, and you just have to be mentally prepared, take care of your body. It’s a long grind, and I’m looking forward to finally being back in the playoffs.”
Fritz and the rest of what is a young Ohio State squad have some playoff pedigree, though. For example, Fritz’s Grande Prairie team won the AJHL title when he was in junior hockey, while Chris Crane and Tyler Lundey both won the USHL’s Clark Cup during their junior careers.
In other words, playoff hockey is playoff hockey, and each member of the Ohio State squad has been there before. The key is to remember those lessons as the Buckeyes try to snap what is a five-game playoff losing streak for the program.
“You have to be on top of your game, and everyone chips in,” said goaltender Brady Hjelle, the CCHA’s first-team all-conference netminder. “Usually in playoffs, you get guys that don’t score during the regular season, they’ll be the heroes. People have to step up. Everyone contributes in playoffs.”
For proof of that, look no further than the last time the Buckeyes hosted Ferris State with a trip to the Joe on the line. In 2005, the Buckeyes were the No. 2 seed in the CCHA playoffs and the Bulldogs were seeded 11th, but the teams played an epic three-game series in which the deciding contest went to overtime.
In the extra frame, it was Ohio State freshman John Dingle who scored just the fourth goal of his career on a rebound to send the team to the next round of the playoffs, and the Buckeyes eventually reached the CCHA title game before moving on to the NCAA tournament.
Such efforts from all members of the team are what it will take to move on this time, especially since the Buckeyes (14-15-7, 13-10-5-1) likely need to win the conference tournament to make the NCAAs this time around.
But the Buckeyes did already play a playoff-type series two weekends ago at Miami (Ohio), beating the league’s regular-season champions in the first contest of a two-game set to break a fourth-place tie with Ferris State and earn the right to host this weekend’s series.
“I think that was playoff mentality hockey, and if our guys can walk away from that and understand that series, Friday night was a battle, Saturday night was a battle,” third-year head coach Mark Osiecki said. “If they can take that and bottle that and understand what that was all about, that’s playoff hockey.”
Back To The Future
For the fourth time in the past seven years, Ohio State will be hosting a playoff series in the OSU Ice Rink.
The old barn is where the men generally practice – Value City Arena, after all, has a busy basketball and concert schedule – and where the OSU women’s team makes its home, but with VCA hosting the state high school girls basketball tournament, the 800-seat rink becomes a tournament venue.
As it turns out, the Buckeyes are just fine with that.
“We practice here more than we practice at the Schott,” Osiecki said. “Our guys are excited to come over here and play. The environment is going to be fun. We’ve been here all year. This is more of a home than the Schott to us, to be honest with you.”
Ohio State is 2-1 in the previous series, all first-round affairs. The Buckeyes lost a three-game series to Northern Michigan in 2007 before sweeps of Bowling Green in 2009 and Notre Dame in 2010.
The athletic department has brought in a few small bleachers to provide more seating, but there still won’t be that many people in the place. That’s a shame for a program that welcomed more than 9,000 fans for its last home game vs. Michigan, but the trade-off is that there will be plenty of noise and support in the close quarters of the Ice Rink.
The team’s seniors suited up in that 2010 series vs. the Fighting Irish and have done what they can to prepare the younger members of the squad for this weekend.
“They told us to be excited,” Fritz said. “They’ve told us it’s going to be a good atmosphere and a lot of fun. Just take it for what it’s worth. I think a lot of us realize if we win two games here, we go to the Joe.”
There will also likely have to be some tactical changes to the game plan playing in the rink. The ice surface was 185 feet, not the standard 200, when the Buckeyes played there before moving to VCA, and rumors still indicate the ice isn’t the standard size despite expansion to a 200-by-85 sheet after the team moved out.
The end zones are also larger than the standard size, giving teams more room behind the net, while the neutral zone appears shorter than in a normal rink. In addition, the boards have a little more bounce than the ones in Value City Arena.
In other words, things might get a little uncomfortable as space will be hard to come by. The Buckeyes just want to be the team that takes advantage.
“It’s going to be exciting,” Osiecki said. “Ferris is used to that. If you go to Ferris’ building, it’s very similar. Obviously it’s a little bit bigger, but they’re used to it – a low ceiling, no bleachers on one side of the ice. I don’t think it’s going to affect them a ton. It’s just going to be a fun environment.”
Between The Pipes
If this series comes down to goaltending – and it should, given that it’s playoff hockey – the Buckeyes hope Hjelle provides an edge.
The OSU senior was the top goaltender in the league this year, leading the pack with four shutouts, earning first-team all-conference honors and capturing the Perani Cup that goes to the player with the most three stars honors.
On the whole, Hjelle – a transfer from Minnesota Duluth who has suited up for two seasons with the Buckeyes – finished with a 2.00 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage. In conference play, he was even better, posting a 1.89 GAA and .937 save percentage while starting every game of the second half.
“When you have a goaltender your team is confident in, it allows you to play on your toes,” Osiecki said. “If you have a goaltender you question a little bit, you’re going to play on your heels.”
On the other side, Ferris State will counter with C.J. Motte, who played in 27 league contests – posting a 2.06 goals-against average and .933 save percentage – on the way to leading the league in minutes.
--The Bulldogs completed the campaign at 13-12-3-1 to earn the No. 5 spot one season after earning the CCHA regular-season title and losing in the national championship game to Boston College.
Kyle Bonis led the squad with 14 goals and had 18 points in conference play, while defenseman Jason Binkley had 15 assists. Garrett Thompson’s line of 10 goals and 12 assists allowed him to post a team-high 22 points. The team’s power play is second in the league at 20.2 percent.
--Ohio State could have a bolstered blue line thanks to the week off. The time gave junior Curtis Gedig and sophomore Al McLean a chance to recover from late-season injuries. Gedig missed six of seven games before coming back for the Miami series, and he had nine points in 20 conference games. McLean hasn’t made much of an impact on the scoreboard this year, finishing with one assist, but is a dependable player who missed the last four games.