Buckeyes, Wolverines Battle For B1G Standing

Nick Schilkey

After a week off, it's time for a madcap run to the finish for the Ohio State men's hockey team starting this weekend with games in Ann Arbor and Columbus vs. rival Michigan. There are major NCAA tournament and Big Ten standings implications as the old rivals meet.

Ohio State is well rested and focused for the final six games of the regular season beginning this weekend with a home-and-sort of home series against No. 13 Michigan.

The first game is Friday (6:30 p.m./BTN) in Ann Arbor at venerable Yost Ice Arena, the 91-year-old facility that gets better with age as the school continually upgrades and renovates one of the best hockey venues in the country.

"The challenge is we're playing a very good team on their home ice in a great barn, in a great atmosphere," OSU coach Steve Rohlik said. "I think it's also a positive. The guys are excited to do that."

After a day off Saturday, the series resumes Sunday (1 p.m./SportsTime Ohio and Fox Sports Detroit) in downtown Columbus at Nationwide Arena, home of the NHL's Blue Jackets.

Value City Arena is busy with the Ohio high school state wrestling tournament and there isn't ice inside the Jerome Schottenstein Center, thus preventing the Buckeyes (15-10-3, 5-6-3-2 Big Ten) from having a true home-ice advantage.

The Buckeyes didn't have an opportunity to practice in Nationwide Arena prior to the game because the ice was also taken out there while the Blue Jackets were on a break for the Sochi Olympics. The Blue Jackets' first home game since is Saturday afternoon vs. the Florida Panthers.

"Let's be honest. It is different than playing here at the Schott," Rohlik said. "It's been a great year here. It is a little bit of a neutral ice but in the same aspect if we can get 10,000 people out there all of a sudden it changes things again. That's what we'd love to see."

Ice will be installed in Value City next week so the Buckeyes can complete their home schedule with games against No. 2 Minnesota on March 7-8. Ohio State is 13-4-1 overall at home and 4-2-1 in conference play.

Yet, senior forward Alex Szczechura said playing in Nationwide Arena should help the Buckeyes for the conference tournament at the Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul, Minn., where the Minnesota Wild call home.

"The Big Ten tournament is also in an NHL building so it will be a good opportunity for us," he said.

This will be the second time the Buckeyes and Wolverines (15-10-3, 7-6-1-1) will engage in a split series. Michigan won the 4-3 in overtime at home on Nov. 29 and again three days later in Columbus when the Wolverines scored in the final two minutes for a 4-3 victory.

OSU is coming off a 4-2 loss to sixth-ranked Wisconsin on Feb. 15 that snapped a 4-0-2 streak for the Buckeyes.

Rohlik said the team used the open weekend following the defeat to recharge, hit the school books and work on the power play. The Buckeyes are 11th in the NCAA and first in the Big Ten on the power play but are scoreless in their past 10 tries, including 0 for 8 vs. the Badgers.

"Wisconsin's probably the best team in the league on the kill and I give them credit but we've got to get back to the basics," Rohlik said. "We controlled pucks but teams are okay if we have it on the perimeter. We were too pretty instead of getting pucks to the net and that's how you score power-play goals."

This will be the last trip to Ann Arbor for seniors Szczechura, defenseman Curtis Gedig and forwards Alex Lippincott and Travis Statchuk.

"Coming from Canada (Brantford, Ontario), I didn't know too much about the rivalry," Szczechura. "Now I realize it's a big rivalry. I think I found out my first game in the Schott when we played Michigan. There were 12, 15-thousand people. I never played in front of that big a crowd before. It definitely was a shock."

The lone OSU player from the Wolverine State is looking forward to the matchup as well.

"Being from Michigan (Marysville) I understand how big the rivalry is but until you're part of this and see how big it really is, it's something else," freshman forward Nick Schilkey said. "I lived about 90 minutes away so (Ann Arbor) was not in my backyard. I never really cheered for Michigan or Michigan State."

The Buckeyes' 20 points are fourth in the Big Ten, three behind Michigan. Wisconsin holds second place and the final spot for a first-round bye with 31 points but has played two more games than OSU and the Wolverines. Ohio State is also tied for 22nd in the PairWise rankings that determine the 16-team NCAA tournament field.

"It's go time," Rohlik said. "Our guys know where we sit in the standings. They know what the goal is down the stretch and where we want to end up. It starts Friday night.

"We're trying to finish as high in the league as we can. Second place is still within reach. If we put a good run together anything can happen. If you do that and take care of business, maybe the NCAA Tournament is within reach."

NOTES: Michigan has won six straight in the series since the Buckeyes swept the Wolverines on Nov. 18-19, 2011, in Ann Arbor… Freshman goalie Christian Frey is expected to start Friday for the Buckeyes. He has a 6-2-2 record. His 2.10 goals-against average is sixth nationally and his .934 save percentage is 10th in the NCAA. He wasn't even enrolled in school when the teams met earlier this season. Freshman walk-on Logan Davis played both games while freshman Matt Tompkins was injured… OSU junior forward Ryan Dzingel is the overall points leader in the conference with 38 (17 goals, 21 assists)… The Buckeyes are 7-3-1 all-time in Nationwide Arena. The last time they played there was Nov. 26-27, 2010.

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