COLUMBUS — The No. 6 Ohio State hockey team can do it all.
On offense, it scored 3.62 goals per game in its last eight coming into this past weekend. Unsurprisingly, the Buckeyes are the only team with three of the Big Ten’s top-10 scorers.
Their defense ranks fourth in the country, allowing just 2.04 goals per game and two or fewer goals in 17 of 26 contests.
And Ohio State’s special teams are as well-rounded as any in collegiate hockey. Its penalty kill stops 90.82 percent of power plays to rank first in the NCAA — the only team over 90 percent.
After starting the season 0-for-20 on the power play through their first four games, the Buckeyes now have the fifth-best power-play unit since Oct. 19, converting 25.58 percent on the man advantage. In its previous five games before the weekend, Ohio State was 9-for-47 — a whopping 40.1 percent.
So when No. 17 Michigan traveled to Columbus to face its archrival, the problems that plagued the Wolverines throughout the season played right to the Buckeyes’ strengths. For Michigan, turnovers in the defensive zone, an inability to create quality scoring chances and a failure to execute on special teams were all on display Friday and Saturday night, resulting in an Ohio State sweep for the second time this season.
The Buckeyes jumped on every opportunity to exploit holes in the Wolverines’ game that had largely been forgotten during Michigan’s four-game winning streak entering the weekend.
“It was a little bit of a wake-up call for us,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson after Saturday’s 5-3 loss. “We may have been getting by and as coaches, we knew that we had to clean some things up. We got a little bit of a reality check this weekend.”
Atop the list were mental lapses on defense, as the Wolverines continuously failed to clear the puck from their zone. Michigan currently ranks 41 out of 60 schools in team defense. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes aren’t ones to squander scoring chances handed to them off miscues.
Friday night, turnovers allowed for considerable Ohio State odd-man rushes — more than Pearson says he had seen in the previous four games combined — and subsequent goals. Twenty-four hours later, more errant passes near the blueline contributed to Michigan’s downfall. The most glaring was an obvious miscommunication between freshman forward Josh Norris and his teammates, resulting in a two-on-one advantage and the Buckeyes’ third goal of the night.
“We have to get back to our game and we have to manage the puck better,” Pearson said. “We talk about it all the time — and you’re probably tired of me saying it — but you can see on the goals that they got this weekend, we got caught out of position, we’re thinking too much on the offense, turned the puck over in some bad spots that led to some of their goals.”
Michigan was also caught out of position on the penalty kill, where it ranks sixth-worst in the country with a meager 76.24 percent success rate. Though the Wolverines held Ohio State 0-for-5 Saturday on the power play, the Buckeyes’ 2-for-3 performance the night before gave them their second and fourth goals — insurance that solidified a home-team win in the series opener.
All the while, the Wolverines struggled on the power play, going 0-for-7 for the weekend. Ohio State consistently outmuscled Michigan for possession, easily clearing the puck and creating shorthanded rushes.
Saturday night, the Buckeyes notched a shorthanded tally on the penalty kill when forward Mason Jobst split the Wolverine defenders and beat sophomore goaltender Hayden Lavigne for his team’s fifth goal of the game, all but sealing the sweep.
Michigan is the nation’s 13th-worst team on the power play — converting a dismal 15 percent of its chances — and it showed the entire series. In the third period Saturday, the Wolverines found themselves on a five-on-three advantage for 1:20 following two Ohio State penalties. But against the best penalty kill unit around, the puck never found the back of the net.
“You’re not going to get many ‘grade-A chances,’ ” Pearson said. “We did have a few on that five-on-three, but that was the difference. They capitalized on their scoring chances and we couldn’t. We’ve got to get a little hungrier around the net, especially in those situations.”
These problems carried over to even strength, where Michigan was continuously limited with quality shots on goal, coupled with impressive saves by Buckeye goaltender Sean Romero.
“We just have to get back to the basics, keep everything simple,” said sophomore forward Jake Slaker, who scored the Wolverines’ third goal with 2:30 left in Saturday’s contest. “Get pucks deep, get in a forecheck and get back to the game we know we can play. It was one of those weekends where bounces weren’t going our way and we weren’t playing the way we need to play.”
As Saturday night’s game progressed, it looked more and more unlikely Michigan would salvage a series split. With frustration boiling over for the visitors, pushing and shoving ensued after seemingly every whistle. Five roughing penalties were assessed to the Wolverines en route to a season-high nine trips to the box.
Despite Pearson stressing the importance of managing the game and controlling emotions, Michigan was far past listening to either.
“I was pretty frustrated, it was a tough night and tough weekend for myself,” Slaker, an assistant captain, said. “It starts with the leadership, and you know, I’m one of the leaders on this team, and I didn’t bring it this weekend.”
Following Saturday night’s loss, the consistent media questions about the Wolverines’ sore spots continued. And Pearson’s answers remained the same, as they have for most of the season — a lack of defensive smarts, inconsistencies on special teams and not scoring when favorable shots presented themselves. Pearson heavily focuses on reversing weaknesses in practice, which doesn’t always pay off when the lights shine brightest against the best of the best like Ohio State.
Maybe Pearson didn’t have to address those issues as much the previous two weekends, when Michigan looked like a viable NCAA Tournament contender. It may have gotten away with the mistakes against then-No. 9 Minnesota and then-No. 12 Penn State during its most recent hot streak, but the Buckeyes made sure to punish the Wolverines.
And Pearson’s metaphor from the first series between the teams this season — when Ohio State handed Michigan its first sweep on the year — stood true the second time around, too.
“The makeup came off and we saw a lot of the blemishes this weekend,” Pearson said Nov. 25. “We were able to cover some things up, (but) this weekend we saw a little bit of some of the issues that we’re going to have going forward.”
The makeup from the last two weekends has finally been washed off, and the blemishes shown through in spades.
Pearson partially chalks the setbacks up to youth and Ohio State’s plethora of talented veterans, a group that makes him believe the Buckeyes may be one of the nation’s two best teams.
“They’ve got juniors and seniors sprinkled through their lineup and they play like that,” Pearson said. “They play with that patience and a little bit of confidence that a young team like us didn’t have this weekend.”
However, players believe the weekend was within their grasp — youth be damned — but got away.
“It’s one of those things where any night any team can win,” Slaker said. “Tonight and last night weren’t our games, but they could have easily been our games. We could have come out of here with six points and two wins, but that just didn’t happen that way this weekend.
“We don’t think about how good they are, we just think about how bad we played.”