The significance of playing the program’s first game in the Big Ten’s new hockey conference is not lost on the Ohio State men’s team but the fact the opponent is a familiar and bitter rival is equally important.
Even so, when Michigan hosts the Buckeyes on Friday at 7:05 p.m. in venerable Yost Ice Arena the game will mark a new era.
“It adds a little more hype to the game because it’s the first in the Big Ten, a school rivalry, too,” OSU senior forward Travis Statchuk said.
The teams have met 116 times since the first encounter in 1964, with many of them as members of the now defunct Central Collegiate Hockey Association.
“Since we’ve played them before we’re not really thinking Big Ten, but it is the first in the Big Ten and obviously there’s a little more excitement,” OSU senior defenseman Curtis Gedig said.
It will be the second game in the league’s history as Wisconsin plays at Minnesota two hours earlier. Those schools came from the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and join ex-CCHA member Michigan State and Penn State, who was an independent last season - its first at the Division I level.
“The guys realize it’s a big deal, but I don’t know if they really realize it until we step into it and really get that feel of the other five teams we’re going to be playing every weekend,” Ohio State coach Steve Rohlik said.
The Buckeyes will then host the Wolverines on Monday at 7:05 p.m. in Value City Arena in their final game before the holiday break.
Friday’s game will be televised by BTN following the Ohio State men’s basketball game vs. North Florida that begins at 5 p.m. and the Monday contest can be seen on SportsTime Ohio and Fox Sport Detroit.
Michigan (8-2-1) is ranked third nationally under longtime coach Red Berenson and has the third stingiest defense (1.82 goals allowed) in the country while the Buckeyes (8-4) have won five straight and score at a 3.58 per game clip to place ninth in that category.
Gedig said the key for Ohio State is to not let Michigan dictate the pace of the game.
“There’s a fine line between thinking Michigan’s so good, but we need to have some swagger,” he said. “Respect our opponent but we also need to focus on us.”
A question mark for the Buckeyes is the status of top goalie Matt Tomkins, who hasn’t played since suffering a leg injury early in the first period of the Nov. 9 game against Niagara.
“We’re unsure right now,” Rohlik said. “I know it sounds like Groundhog Day but we’re day to day with him. It’s going to be a game-time decision.”
One factor he has to consider is that after this series the Buckeyes don’t play again until hosting Mercyhurst Dec. 28-29.
“We’ve got to take advantage of the time off,” Rohlik said. “His health is more important than anything. If he plays this weekend he’s ready to go then after this weekend we’ll reevaluate and get him some time off and certainly make sure he is 100 percent for the second half.”
Freshman walk-on Logan Davis has performed well in Tomkins’ absence, going 3-0 with a 0.68 goals-against average, including a 3-0 shutout of Canisius on Nov. 15.
The Buckeyes rolled through the nonconference schedule after losing the first three games and in winning eight of the past nine have outscored opponents on average 3.9-1.9.
While they didn’t play the weekend of Nov. 22-23, Gedig doesn’t think the Buckeyes have lost any momentum.
“It wasn’t much of a break,” he said. “It was probably the hardest week of the year. We didn’t turn it off at all. We kept going through. If anything we’ve gotten in better shape. We’re more prepared now.”
They will need to be going into a most hostile environment – on the eve of the football game between the schools in Ann Arbor, no less.
“Their student section is behind our bench and they’re heckling us the whole time,” Statchuk said. “It kind of makes it fun.”
Gedig agrees, “They’re crazy. They’re loud. They have their chants. It’s a good college hockey atmosphere.”
The Buckeyes are banking on the memories from sweeping the Wolverines 2-1 and 6-5 on Nov. 18-19, 2011, in their last trip to Yost.
“It can sometimes be a little intimidating going into Yost playing the Wolverines,” Statchuk said. “But knowing that we’ve had success there before, I think that helps.”