KALAMAZOO, Mich. — “I love playing here, because the fans are always hard. To tell you the truth, it gets me going.”
The notorious Lawson Arena fans couldn’t faze Dave Steckel or the Buckeyes on the evening, as Steckel tallied both the game-winning goal and the insurance marker to lead seventh-seeded Ohio State to a 3-1 victory, and a sweep of sixth-seeded Western Michigan in the first round of the CCHA playoffs.
OSU head coach John Markell was grateful for his sophomore forward’s performance.
“What’s gratifying is the way they get on Dave Steckel here, and [how] he kind of stuck it to them,” said Markell. “They get on him hard; I don’t exactly hear all the words, but it’s nice to see some redemption there.”
Kalamazoo might as well be called Columbus West, as the Buckeyes, who have won only six games on the road all season, took all four contests in Kalamazoo. The Bucks are 7-1-1 in their last nine games at Lawson Arena.
OSU advances to the CCHA quarterfinals at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. The Buckeyes’ opponent will be determined by the remaining two CCHA first-round series between LSSU and Michigan, and Notre Dame and UNO.
The loss capped a disappointing finish for the Broncos, who dropped four straight games to end the season after winning seven of eight games in February.
“We had such a great month of February,” said WMU head coach Jim Culhane. “And such a great run, winning seven of eight games in February to put ourselves into a position to host a playoff series for the first time in six years. The guys work tremendously hard to achieve that first goal, and there are just no words to express how I feel, at this point.
“No fault to the guys at all. I think we played extremely hard.”
Despite only seeing 21 shots on the evening, OSU sophomore Mike Betz was incredible, stopping 20 Bronco shots, including several breakaways and a pressing WMU attack in the third period. Senior WMU netminder Jeff Reynaert, in his final game as a Bronco, stopped 21 shots in defeat.
“You have to give credit to Betz,” said Culhane. “Some of the saves he made were spectacular, and give them credit. Ohio State played a heck of a series, [they are a] great opponent, and they’ll represent the league very well in the
Following the game, Betz was asked if this was his best performance of the season. “In terms of important games and how I played, I think so. I’ve played some pretty good hockey this year, but with a game of this magnitude, it’s the right time to save for.”
The WMU power play — second-best in the league — was impotent on the weekend, going 0-for-4 with only three shots on the man-advantage Saturday, and 0-for-7 Friday. The Bronco power play was a dismal 1-for-22 in their last four contests.
OSU senior forward Mike McCormick put the Buckeyes on top early at 1:07 of the first period when the Peterborough, Ont., native tapped in a rebound from an R.J. Umberger shot to give OSU a 1-0 lead.
Steckel beat Reynaert from the left faceoff dot at 4:12 of the third period to score the game-winning goal and put OSU up 2-0.
“I took away the middle and I knew he wasn’t going to the boards,” said Steckel, “because I think our defense was pinching down. So the only way was up, and I kind of played it like that. Their defense took out our two forwards
and it gave me a lane, so I shot five-hole and it went in.”
WMU sophomore Lucas Drake cut the lead in half at 7:37 of the third period when the forward deflected a shot from behind the net, off Betz and into the Buckeye goal to cut the OSU lead to 2-1.
You have to be lucky to be good, and you have to be good to be lucky. Betz had a little of both at 9:59 of the third when referee Steve Piotrowski blew down a loose puck that was inches from crossing the goal line to the left of Betz.
“I kept my eye on it, which is kind of good,” said Betz. “I was kind of happy no one got to it before he blew the whistle because I sort of stacked my pads, and I tried to go with my glove. It’s one of those nightmares that never ends: you’re just that much out of reach. I tried to get it with my stick, and it was right there and he blew it down.”
Steckel spoke about how having a solid netminder in Betz allowed the Buckeyes to open up.
“He played excellent this weekend. He was the horse once again. With that confidence going into the Joe, every mistake isn’t going into the back of the net, and we can afford to play a little riskier at times.”
WMU gave the Buckeyes plenty of opportunities with the man-advantage, successfully killing all but the final Bronco penalty, a crucial slashing minor by Mike Jarmuth at 18:35. With Reynaert pulled for the extra attacker, the
Buckeyes had an open net to shoot for, which Steckel found after WMU defenseman Dave Cousineau left Steckel wide open at the blue line for a 60-foot pass from J.B. Bittner at 19:34 of the third. The NHL first-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Kings cashed in, and sent the Buckeyes home 3-1 winners.
In a strange twist, the Broncos were assessed a bench minor by Piotrowski at 19:34 after Culhane kept his players on the bench following goal.
“Very seldom,” said Culhane, “have I seen that in hockey — a neutral-zone penalty, a minute-and-a-half to go in the game, especially a playoff game. It’s a two-one hockey game, a minute-and-a-half to go. Steve’s one of our best in the league. Was it one of his best games tonight? I don’t think so. It’s his call, and I think I made my point pretty clear to him when I didn’t put my guys out, how frustrating it was for me.”
Culhane also talked about the difficult job of consoling the departing seniors.
“It’s the worst part of your job. It’s difficult to lose seven seniors, guys who have gone through a lot with this program. They’ve been through a coaching change, not making the playoffs, and not being nationally ranked. [There are] seven kids who are going to be truly missed.
“You don’t have words to express how you feel. We want to win so bad, we work so hard, and you love those kids so much, it’s difficult to see them go. But it’s part of the process, it’s part of growing as a man, and there’s a lot of tears being shed next door.”
Markell knows the Buckeyes need to clean up their play if they want to advance further in the playoffs.
“I was more worried in the first were we were just screwing up, not as clean and crisp as I want us to be,” Markell said. “We didn’t pay the price tonight, but we’ll go back and watch that tape and I’ll show them. It’s part of the learning process. They know they weren’t as crisp as they were last night, and they know they can’t be that way next weekend.
“I think we were a little sloppy there in the first, but we got the one-goal lead. In the second period, we squandered a five-on-three that I thought would have put us over the top. But we kept getting those few chances to keep ourselves in the game and keep them honest, but we have some work to do if we are going to make itWe’re going to have to get that power play working.”
Betz was asked if not converting on the five-on-three deflated OSU.
“I would say the only reason not is because, honestly, right now, we don’t expect much from our power play. It’s a good chance, but right now, things aren’t going well for us. We’re trying to get it corrected, but I don’t think it was deflating at all. This whole series, guys have just been cheering for each other, and if we score or don’t score on the power play, kill the penalty or don’t kill the penalty, we’ll still be on each other.”