Tourney Beckons For OSU Icers

Tourney Beckons For OSU Icers

The last time Ohio State participated in the first year of a conference tournament, the Buckeyes won it. That was more than four decades ago, though, and the competition will be stiffer this weekend at the inaugural Big Ten hockey tournament. OSU, which opens today vs. Michigan State, must win out to continue its season.

Ohio State took a big step last season in regaining some of the luster from the early-to-mid-2000s when the Buckeyes were a frequent participant in the NCAA Tournament and won the school's second Central Collegiate Hockey Association title in 2004.

So it was a big deal when OSU in 2013 beat Ferris State in the deciding game of the best-of-three quarterfinal series to advance to the CCHA semifinals for the first time in eight years.

But the Buckeyes hopes of being the last team to win the tourney before the league disbanded – OSU won the CCHA's first title in 1972 – were squashed in a 3-1 defeat to Notre Dame at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.

It was a bitter loss but looking back a year later the returning players might find the experience of playing a high stakes, one-and-done game to be beneficial Thursday.

That's when the No. 4-seeded Buckeyes play fifth seed Michigan State (8 p.m., Big Ten Network) in a quarterfinal game of the Big Ten's inaugural hockey tournament at the Xcel Energy Center, home of the NHL's Minnesota Wild, in Saint Paul, Minn.

Win and move on to play Friday in a semifinal vs. top-ranked Minnesota. Lose and the season is over. It's that simple for the Buckeyes.

"Play your hardest. No regrets," junior forward Tanner Fritz said of the approach toward an elimination game. "You have to go out there and have fun."

In recent CCHA seasons teams had at least one and sometimes two playoff series before reaching the semifinals. That allowed for bad play, bad periods and bad games. One loss was not fatal because it took two wins to advance.

That's all changed with the new league. All six teams are competing at one spot over three days to crown a champion.

"I think playing at The Joe (Louis Arena) last year is going to help," OSU coach Steve Rohlik said. "Remember, we've got a lot of guys who played there and know what it's like to play in a winner take-all game."

Nineteen players are back from last season's team but the Buckeyes have gotten a boost from three members of the Big Ten's All-Freshman Team: forward Nick Schilkey, defenseman Drew Brevig and goalie Christian Frey.

"This format is going to make the teams come out and play their best knowing it's all on the line, especially for us," Brevig said.

The Buckeyes (16-13-5, 6-9-5-4 Big Ten), Spartans and sixth seed Penn State, which plays Michigan in the other semifinal Thursday (3 p.m., BTN), know the only path to the 16-team NCAA tournament is to win three games in as many days.

Minnesota and fifth-ranked Wisconsin are locks while No. 12 Michigan is in great shape to receive a berth.

OSU knows it can be done, having 10 years ago won three in three when the CCHA used a "Super 6" format at Joe Louis Arena.

Rohlik has seen it happen more recently. He was an assistant coach at Minnesota Duluth in 2009 when the Bulldogs qualified for the league's "Final Five." After winning the play-in game they claimed victories in the semifinal and final.

Coincidentally, the WCHA tournament was held at the Xcel Energy Center until the Big Ten took over the site this season.

That home-ice advantage would seem to make Minnesota the favorite for Saturday's title game but Rohlik isn't ready to hand the former WCHA team the trophy just yet.

"If you look at what they've done in the tournament over the years you'll see that they didn't win it as much as you'd think," he said.

In fact, the 13 years the WCHA held the tournament at the Xcel Energy Center the Golden Gophers won it all three times (2003, ‘04 and '07).

Ohio State is not thinking ahead to facing Minnesota because Michigan State (11-17-7, 5-9-6-4) presents a formidable challenge.

"There's not much difference between us," Rohlik said.

OSU won the first meeting 5-3 by scoring three times in the third period. The next three games ended in ties that went to shootouts. The Spartans won the first one and the Buckeyes took the next two in East Lansing. Two of the shootouts went to extra rounds.

Since there are no shootouts in the postseason the teams could play all night if necessary to determine a winner.

"All the games against them have been so tight," Fritz said. "One mistake can make all the difference."

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