Forty-one years ago, a band of underrated Ohio State hockey players traveled to St. Louis, Mo., to take part in the initial Central Collegiate Hockey Association tournament.
The Buckeyes – led by a few future NHL players and a couple of eventual OSU coaches – were representing a ninth-year program that was, for the first time, grouped with a three of its peers with a championship on the line.
Ohio State achieved its ultimate goal that year by capturing that 1972 title, beating Ohio and St. Louis to earn the initial CCHA championship.
Now, the Buckeyes have a chance to put bookends on the league. The CCHA is breaking up after this season, with Ohio State set to join the nascent Big Ten next year, with one final tournament beginning tomorrow in Detroit when the fourth-seeded Buckeyes take on second-seeded Notre Dame in a semifinal at 1 p.m. that will be shown on Fox Sports Ohio.
Those who set the initial path for the Buckeyes, including star goaltender and one-time OSU coach Bill McKenzie, would like to see Ohio State go out just as it came in – as champions.
“I’ve talked to a couple of guys once Ohio State qualified, and there are guys that are excited about seeing them there,” McKenzie said. “They’re excited for them to go to Joe Louis. They haven’t been there for a while. I think the guys that have been following the program are happy for the kids to get to experience what we experienced.”
After all, perhaps it’s fitting that Ohio State is in the last-ever CCHA finals given the fact that the Buckeyes are one of two programs, along with Bowling Green, still active after being part of the initial league.
What better way than breaking a league-worst eight-year drought of not having been to Joe Louis Arena – home of the Detroit Red Wings and site of the tournament since 1982 – than to do it with history on the line?
But that’s not what is on the mind of the Ohio State players and coaches as they take part in the program’s first trip to the Motor City since 2005. What is the focus is best blending business with pleasure.
“We have a task at hand, and you do have to enjoy it a bit,” Osiecki said. “You have to look around and make sure you enjoy the experience because more of this is going to happen as we move forward with our program. They have to understand what the whole thing is about, embrace it, but obviously as we get toward (Friday) night, put on the right frame of mind and right face. When Saturday comes around, you have to have a very businesslike attitude going in.”
Ohio State had a little fun Thursday night when it first arrived at The Joe, the historic home of the Red Wings, snapping pictures from the Wings’ locker room and posting them on Twitter.
Most of the players haven’t played at The Joe before, so the first day was all about soaking up the atmosphere.
“It’s the place you want to be,” sophomore forward Max McCormick said.
Tonight brings the CCHA awards show and more acclimation time in the Motor City, but Saturday will be all about the hockey.
“There’s no question on how you do it, you just have to get it done,” Osiecki said. “It doesn’t have to be pretty, it doesn’t have to be perfect, and I think our guys understand that.”
Ohio State might have learned exactly how it has to approach this weekend’s games when it came back from a one-game deficit to beat Ferris State last weekend at the OSU Ice Rink to win a best-of-three series.
Osiecki has spent enough time in college hockey, including winning the 1990 national title as a player at Wisconsin, to know what it takes this time of year as well. From here on out, the Buckeyes must win two-game segments to keep their season alive, especially because the team must win this weekend’s CCHA tournament to make the NCAA tourney.
“I think the mind-set going into this weekend is two games,” McCormick said. “(Coach) has prepared us well. I think we learned a little bit more about what that takes winning this past weekend. It takes heart. It’s playoffs. It comes down to who want sit more and who is willing to get in front and block that shot, who’s willing to crash the net, who’s willing to win battles. You have to play with your heart and compete and you have to want it more.”
Ohio State used those lessons to come back to beat the Bulldogs, a unit that won last season’s CCHA regular-season title and then advanced all the way to the NCAA national championship game.
They did it by using a tried-and-true playoff formula, starting with goaltending. Senior Brady Hjelle, the CCHA first-team goalie and a candidate for the league’s player of the year honor, stopped a career-high 47 shots in the Buckeyes’ Game 3 victory and was clearly on his game with both his ability to make the reaction save while staying square to the shooters.
“I just think I’m more desperate,” Hjelle said. “I just don’t want the season to be over, and I’ll do anything I can to keep it going.”
The team’s power play is also on fire, having scored goals in all three postseason contests including two in the deciding game. The Buckeyes scored on a set play rush in that game for the second consecutive contest while also showing the ability to set up in the zone and win puck battles to lead to open shots.
“I think coming up the ice, we’re doing a pretty good job as a group of five, all being on the same page,” Osiecki said. “But being able to connect the dots, if you can’t make passes and receive them, you’re not going to have much success on the power play.”
Ohio State’s big guns also did what they had to do. Defenseman Curtis Gedig was a beast on both sides of the ice, finishing with five points, and made a shutdown pair with Craig Dalrymple. McCormick scored in all three games, Dzingel had the first assist on all three Game 3 goals and CCHA leading scorer Tanner Fritz was on the scoresheet as well.
“They have one of the best if not the best goalie in the country, and that certainly solidifies everything they do,” Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson said. “That’s not to say they don’t have skill and talent up front. They have a lot of guys that allow them to play an aggressive style, forechecking-wise. They have a good power play.
“Sometimes they can take risks. They’re aggressive with their D. They have a big D that has skills, and those defensemen activate into their rush, so they’re good in transition. When they do break down, they have a wall in net, and that’s always the biggest obstacle, just trying to get to Hjelle on the back end because he’s had a stellar year.”
The marquee semifinal is the latter one, which features CCHA regular-season champion Miami and a surging Michigan team that needs to win to keep its two-decade-plus NCAA tournament streak alive, but the Buckeyes and Fighting Irish should also put on a quite a show.
Both teams are playing good hockey, with second-seeded Notre Dame having won four consecutive games and owning a 6-1-2 mark since Ohio State took four of six points from the Fighting Irish at Value City Arena on Feb. 1-2.
Notre Dame leaving Columbus winless in February moved the team to 2-7-1 in its first 10 games of the calendar year, but things certainly turned around quickly for the Blue and Gold.
Looking back, Jackson put some of the blame on a stretch of six games in 12 nights that “really set (his team) back.” Now, healthy and able to get back into a rhythm, the Irish are flying high.
“I think everybody maintained a calm attitude, a positive attitude,” Jackson said. “I think we had good leadership and guys stayed patient and stayed with the program. Over the last month, we’ve started to look very similar to how we were in the first half.”
Notre Dame is coming off of a two-game sweep of ninth-seeded Bowling Green in the quarterfinals in South Bend, with Bryan Rust getting the overtime goal to win Game 1, 1-0, and adding two more tallies in the 4-3 clincher.
CCHA Player of the Year finalist Anders Lee leads the team with 19 goals and 18 assists, and he provides a big body down the middle of the ice who can play in all situations. Rust has a 15-17-32 line and goalie Steven Summerhays has a 1.99 goals-against average and .921 save percentage in 32 starts.
“Jeff has done a tremendous job with that program, and they are unbelievably well coached,” Osiecki said. “I think they’re very, very disciplined with their team systems. I think we’re going to have to be extremely patient, be smart, and this team is so gifted talent-wise.
“You’re going to have four, five, six NHL players coming out of there. We have to play as a group of 20 guys and play very disciplined within our systems and staying out of the penalty box.”
Previous CCHA Championship Squads
The Buckeyes won the first CCHA title in simple fashion. After tying St. Louis for first place in the regular-season standings with an 8-4 record, the Buckeyes swept through the four-team tournament to earn the crown.
OSU, which entered the tournament at 22-5 and on a seven-game winning streak, faced fourth-seeded Ohio in the first game and had no trouble advancing to the title contest, posting a 7-1 win in St. Louis. Team MVP Jerry Welsh scored two goals on the way to the victory.
That set up one final showdown between the Billikens and Buckeyes, but Dave Chambers’ OSU squad silenced the home crowd. Peter Bartkiewicz scored on a breakaway from 30 feet out late in the first period, Welsh tallied his team-high 28th goal early in the second in front and Bartkiewicz added a third-period goal while Bill McKenzie had yet another shutout in the 3-0 win.
Afterward, Welsh, McKenzie and Witherspoon all were named to the all-tournament team.
“We were not expected to win, and that makes it even more satisfying because not only did we finish first but we won the tournament,” Chambers said. “We proved that we were the best team that year.”
The Buckeyes finished fourth during the CCHA regular season, going 16-12-0, before sweeping ninth-place Bowling Green by scores of 3-2 and 5-2 in Columbus in the first round of the playoffs to reach what was then the CCHA Super Six.
Next up was a quarterfinal matchup with fifth-seeded Notre Dame in Joe Louis Arena, and the Buckeyes came from behind to post a 6-5 victory in overtime. Matt Beaudoin had two goals and two assists, including the game-tying tally with 2:26 to go, and Tyson Strachan beat goalie David Brown 9:49 into overtime with the winning goal from the right point.
In the semifinals, Ohio State needed another comeback, this one against second-seeded Miami (Ohio). The Buckeyes tied the game twice in the third period, then captain JB Bittner tallied at the right post just 23 seconds into overtime before sliding down the ice in jubilation to send OSU to the championship contest.
That game came against a high-flying, top-seeded Michigan team in front of 17,895 largely pro-Michigan fans, but Ohio State never trailed on the way to a 4-2 win. Paul Caponigri, Doug Andress and Dan Knapp scored in the second period, and goaltender Dave Caruso helped frustrate a late Michigan rally before Doug Andress scored a 180-foot, empty-net, shorthanded goal with 31 seconds left to clinch the win.
Caponigri was named the tournament MVP, while OSU became the first school from outside of Michigan to win the event since 1988.
“You felt like maybe you were the stepbrother a little bit,” Caponigri said. “To go in there and do it the way we did it, having to win three games in three days and beat easily our two biggest rivals in the league to win it, it’s definitely the highlight of my playing career.
“I can still remember, I’m sitting here where the Zamboni goes out just waiting on an interview and I’m standing there shaking. I just couldn’t think like, ‘Man, we just did what we just did. I don’t want this moment to end. I just want to sit here and soak it in.’ That was like 15 minutes after the game ended. Like I said, I remember it like it was 10 minutes ago. That just tells you how great it was.”