Ohio State is a very good hockey team.
The Buckeyes are ranked sixth in the nation in both the USCHO and USA Today polls, and fourth in Pairwise. They’re 11th nationally in scoring and fourth in goals against. Their power play percentage is better than that of all but seven teams, and their penalty kill is second to none. They’ve won 23 games, lost eight and tied five.
“Personally,” said Michigan senior forward Dexter Dancs, “I think they’re the best team in the Big Ten that we’ve played so far.”
Notre Dame may have won the Big Ten regular-season title and might be ranked ahead of Ohio State in every poll. But it’s easy to see where Dancs is coming from.
Back in late November, the Buckeyes walked into Yost Ice Arena and stomped all over the Wolverines, leaving with wins of 3-2 and 5-1. Two months later, Michigan traveled to Columbus a different team, coming off four straight wins against then-No. 9 Minnesota and then-No. 12 Penn State — and Ohio State walloped the Wolverines again, by a combined score of 9-3.
This Saturday, in the Big Ten Tournament semifinal in Columbus (7:30, Big Ten Network), they’ll get a chance to change that with a spot in next Saturday’s conference championship game on the line.
Michigan is rolling right now. Two straight wins over the nation’s top-ranked team and a 12-3-1 record in its last 16 games prove as much.
But none of those victories have come against the Wolverines’ fiercest rival.
“We love to hate Ohio State,” said senior forward Tony Calderone. “So definitely just playing them even if we’ve beat them already, I think (not having beaten Ohio State) gives us a little extra fire.”
What makes the Buckeyes just so tough? For one, they appear to be specifically engineered to exploit any and all opposing weaknesses. Their sterling statistics with the man advantage and when shorthanded attest to that.
At the same time, it’s been inconsistency and little mistakes — such as neutral and defensive-zone turnovers and meaningless penalties — that have cost Michigan more than anything throughout the season, even during its most recent surge. The Wolverines’ four losses to Ohio State, then, went exactly how you might have expected. They outshot the Buckeyes, 131-120, during the season series, but allowed five goals on 14 Buckeye power plays while failing to score on any of their 12 chances.
“That’s how Ohio State plays,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson, who stated that his team “beat themselves” in January’s series. “… (The Buckeyes are) very patient and they just wait to capitalize on your mistakes and they’re very good at it. But we just tried to do too much. We were getting behind and then we pressed, we started pressing, and when you start pressing sometimes you try to do too much and get out of position, you play on the offense and that’s what happens, you turn it over.”
Added Calderone: “We got to stay out of the box, we got to eliminate our turnovers around the blue lines, which is something we’ve struggled with recently. So as long as we can eliminate their chances we won’t beat ourselves.”
But even if the Wolverines eradicate most, if not all, of their prior mistakes, it may not make a difference.
Ohio State possesses a deep forward corps, with six in double-digit goals this season. Their top line — Big Ten Player of the Year finalist Tanner Laczynski (41 points), Mason Jobst (41) and Matthew Weis (36) — is one of the few anywhere that can go blow-for-blow with Michigan’s “DMC” trio of Dancs, Calderone and Cooper Marody. Sean Romeo (.925 save percentage), meanwhile, might be the best goaltender in the conference not named Cale Morris, and is liable to steal any game at any time.
“They’re the favorite. To me they’re one of the top three, four teams in the country, easily, easily,” Pearson said. “So it’s just like you’re going to be playing somebody in the (NCAA) Tournament if you get in. Good opportunity, good measuring stick for us, and we’ll be ready.”
Now, about that NCAA Tournament.
Saturday’s contest begins a new phase of the Wolverines’ season. Their previous 36 games held no win-or-go-home implications — save for the Great Lakes Invitational in January. But from this weekend on, there are no more Friday-Saturday matchups. No more best-of-however-many series. For the rest of the season, Michigan has only one game at a time to achieve its goals.
“You play to win. You can play a shorter bench because you only have one game,” Pearson said. “… So you’re not concerned about resting guys or not giving them as much ice time because you know you have to play the next day. This is it. It’s all on the table and you don’t play again for another week. … You play for that moment, to win that game.”
This game, however, is likely the Wolverines’ biggest test of the season.
Thus, coming out on top will take their strongest performance of the season as well.