Through the halfway point of the Big Ten hockey conference’s inaugural season the competiveness is what Ohio State thought it would be.
The Buckeyes (14-9-1, 4-5-1-0 Big Ten) have 10 games remaining in the regular season and sit fourth of six teams but are not giving up on the idea of finishing higher.
“We’re not exactly where we want to be but we’re still in the hunt and that’s exciting,” first-year head coach Steve Rohlik said.
OSU has 13 points and is looking to increase its lead over fifth-place Michigan State (8-13-4, 2-5-3-3), who has 12, in a series that begins Friday (6:30 p.m., Big Ten Network) at Munn Ice Arena in East Lansing, Mich. The teams also play there Saturday (4 p.m., SportsTime Ohio/Fox Sports Detroit).
“We’re trying to distance ourselves from them while at the same time climb and get up there with Wisconsin and Michigan,” OSU sophomore defenseman Sam Jardine said.
Rohlik has talked up that anyone can lose on a given night in the league and while Penn State, in its second season as a varsity program, is winless in eight conference games the Nittany Lions have scared a few teams.
The Buckeyes trailed them 2-0 in the second period last Saturday before rallying for a 5-2 victory to extend their winning streak to three games.
“We always seem to bounce back but we were a little bit different on Saturday,” Rohlik said. “Knowing that it’s a league game and points are huge, knowing the guys answered the bell the way they did and scored a couple of power-play goals - it was kind of matter of fact - I think it was a big step for us.”
The win streak has enabled Ohio State to stay within range of second-place Wisconsin, who upset top-ranked Minnesota 2-1 on Thursday to end the Golden Gophers’ 14-game unbeaten streak.
“This is the fun time of the year,” Rohlik said. “You’ve got to recognize what’s at stake. You have to talk about those things a bit because you’ve got to put yourself in those positions.”
Minnesota (26 points) is running away with the conference and the Badgers (19) moved past Michigan (17) into second although they have played three more games than the Wolverines.
All teams qualify for the single-elimination conference tournament March 20-22 at Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul, Minn., but seeding is important.
The top two teams get byes into the semifinals while the quarterfinals will have the third seed vs. the sixth and four vs. five. The tournament winner earns the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Rohlik believes that at least two other conference schools will receive at-large bids.
“If we get on a run and play our best hockey it will all take care of itself,” he said. “Do we have to win out? I don’t think so. If we finish in the top three we’ll have a pretty good shot it.”
But first the Buckeyes must take care of the Spartans. In the series in Columbus on Jan. 10-11, the Buckeyes won the opener 5-3 and played to 1-1 tie the next night with the Spartans grabbing the valuable extra point for winning the shootout.
The Buckeyes are fifth nationally in scoring at 3.62 goals per game but junior Ryan Dzingel, who is fourth in the NCAA with 36 points (17 goals, 19 assists), said they can’t rely solely on their firepower to win games.
“Going at the end of the season it’s going to be a little bit tighter, especially heading into the playoffs,” he said. “Teams buckle down and play better 5-on-5. I don’t think we’re going to have to score like we have been. We’ll tighten up defensively and special teams will decide games.”
Yet, it’s a comfort knowing that OSU has the capability to turn a deficit, such as the one against Penn State, into another win.
“We looked at each other on the bench and knew we had to step it up,” Dzingel said. “The fact we have confidence in our goal-scoring ability helps out because we’re down two but we know we can catch up pretty quick.”
The Buckeyes haven’t been just about the offense. Freshman goalie Christian Frey earned one of the conference’s weekly three stars for the second consecutive week by stopping 70 of 73 shots against Penn State, including 46 in a 5-1 win in the Friday night game.
Rohlik has been without injured defensemen senior Curtis Gedig and sophomore Craig Dalrymple the past four games but Gedig will make the trip this weekend and may see action.