The last time the Wisconsin Badgers played a hockey game in Columbus the United States was nearly six months away from landing the first men on the moon.
But with the creation of the Big Ten’s hockey conference this season the weekend visit by the Badgers to Value City Arena won’t be the last for another 45 years. The teams play Friday (7 p.m.) and Saturday (8 p.m./NBC Sports Network).
The eighth-ranked Badgers (16-8-2, 7-4-1-0 Big Ten) finally return, hoping to improve on their unblemished record in Ohio’s capital city.
Of course, none of the current Ohio State players or staff had anything to do with that. Head coach Steve Rohlik was less than a year old when the Badgers defeated the Buckeyes by a 5-0 score on Jan. 29, 1969, to put a stamp on their only three games played in Columbus.
The Badgers won the trio by a combined score of 24-3 at the OSU Ice Rink. The schools – playing in separate conferences - didn’t meet again anywhere until the 2004 NCAA East Regional in Albany, N.Y., but the closest the Badgers have been to Columbus was playing the Buckeyes in the 2007 Lefty McFadden Invitational at the Nutter Center in Dayton.
While Wisconsin holds an 11-2-0 all-time mark the Buckeyes claimed victory the last time the teams played in Madison on Jan. 25. After losing the opener 5-3 in the Kohl Center the previous night, OSU rebounded for a 3-1 win.
That has spring-boarded OSU to a 3-0-2 streak in the past five games, garnering 13 of a possible 15 points. The Buckeyes (14-9-3, 4-5-3-2) scored a pair of third-period comeback 2-2 ties at Michigan State last weekend and won the shootout in both.
“We’re never out of it. Our guys believe in that,” Rohlik said. “The problem was we went stretches where we were very good at times and struggled at times. At this time of the year we’ve got to try to be consistent.”
The Buckeyes can’t afford to disappear for awhile against the Badgers, who last week beat then-No. 1 Minnesota twice at home by 2-1 scores.
“Wisconsin is a team that doesn’t beat themselves,” said Rohlik, captain of Wisconsin’s 1990 national championship team. “They’ve got great systems. Their goaltender’s very good.”
Junior netminder Joel Rumpel stopped 59 of 61 shots against the Golden Gophers and is fifth nationally and best in the conference with a 1.90 goals-against average.
The challenge for the Buckeyes, tied for fifth nationally in scoring (3.50), is not to get frustrated by hot goaltending. They fired 92 shots at Michigan State’s Jake Hildebrand in two games but beat him only four times, with three of them coming in the third period.
“Our team understands a lot of these games are going to be low scoring games,” Rohlik said. “We’re not going to be in a 6-5 shootout. We know we’re that we’ve got to get pucks to the net and get to those dirty areas. We might not get 35 shots. We might get 25 but we’ve got to make them count.”
OSU, also fifth nationally on the power play (23.3), has struggled getting goals at even strength but got two of them from fourth-liner junior Matt Johnson in the second game vs. the Spartans.
“We’re doing a lot of work, battling in the corners (with) 2-on-2s, 3-on-3s,” he said. “It’s something we’ve been focusing on lately and obviously it’s paying off.”
Junior forward Nick Oddo knows the Buckeye will have to work for every goal.
“We got protect the puck down low, get the puck down low and get a lot of shots on Rumpel and hopefully get some rebounds and bang them,” he said.
The Buckeyes are expected to start freshman goalie Christian Frey for a sixth straight game. The winning streak started when he made 36 saves in the win at Wisconsin. Since joining the program in mid-December he is 5-1-2 with a 2.11 GAA and a .935 save percentage.
Friday’s game will be the fourth annual Teddy Bear Toss to benefit the children at the Ronald McDonald House and Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Fans are encouraged to bring a new stuffed animal (wrapped in a plastic bag) to toss on the ice during the first intermission.
In the first few years the animals were tossed after the first OSU goal but that has been changed to prevent a prolonged disruption of the game.