COLUMBUS, Ohio — It was a case of a team winning in spite of itself. Ohio State extended its six-game home undefeated streak by downing Alaska-Fairbanks, 2-1, killing off nine penalties — including two five-on-three advantages and a six-on-four for the closing seconds of the game — in the process.
“They’ve got good goaltending, and when we had opportunities to play them five-on-five I thought it was a good game,” said OSU head coach John Markell. “Obviously, our penalty kill came to play tonight and it was the difference-maker. We got some clutch goals.”
JB Bittner scored unassisted and Rod Pelley’s eighth power-play goal of the season was the winner for the Buckeyes. Dave Caruso had 21 saves in his eighth win of the season.
Wylie Rogers made 30 stops in the loss as the Buckeyes outshot the Nanooks 32-22.
“They had more shots killing penalties than we had on the power play,” said UAF head coach Tavis MacMillan. “That’s just work ethic. You’ve got one more person than they’ve got on the ice. It’s nothing but work ethic.”
The Nanooks took the early lead on Ryan McLeod’s first-period goal, the result of a turnover created by Cramer Hickey. Hickey passed up to Kelly Czuy, who shot the puck to McLeod already streaking up the right wing. As McLeod deked an OSU defender at the top of the right circle, Caruso committed himself out in front of the Buckeye crease — about five feet in front of the Buckeye crease.
“The puck was bouncing all night out there and it hopped over their D-man’s stick and I just picked it up … and came in off the left sight and cut back,” said McLeod. “He was out too far, and I just went around him and popped it into the back of the net.” UAF led 1-0 after one.
Bittner scored at 4:33 in the second, accidentally banking in the puck off of Rogers’ left leg. Bittner was trying to set up a play for linemate Dan Knapp, and his shot from the goal line hit Rogers’ far blocker and ricocheted back into the net through a standing five-hole to tie the game. “My job was to forecheck,” said the OSU captain. “I was just trying to put it on net and it was a lucky bounce there.”
Pelley scored his game-winner at 10:35 in the third from his favorite spot on the ice, at the top of the right circle. Seven of Pelley’s eight power-play goals this season have come from that position. “I kind of camp out there when there’s a bit of a scramble going,” said Pelley. “I know if there’s a loose puck I can take it in.”
OSU’s penalty kill was so smothering that it allowed just one shot on net through six man-advantages by the midway point of the second, and two shots in the first two stanzas.
“I think any time you have a good penalty kill, you need good goaltending,” said Markell. “It starts there. We were [also] making the right reads and obviously we were blocking shots. We had to kill off two five-on-threes, and any time you do that, it’s three or four guys on the ice with good positioning.”
With 3:17 left in regulation and a one-goal lead, the Buckeyes found themselves on the short end of a five-on-three for the second time of the night when Sean Collins went to the box for hooking while Matt Beaudoin was already there for interference.
In the 38 seconds of the Nanook two-man advantage, Bittner blocked four consecutive shots from the right point, prompting him to bang his stick on the ice enthusiastically.
“I was just excited,” he said. “I heard the bench yelling, and it was just a spur-of-the-moment thing when I did it. I was just pumped about the play and that’s why I did it.”
“When a guy blocks four shots in a row,” said Markell, “it’s inspirational for the rest of us.”
The combination of penalties and week off kept the Buckeyes off-kilter in the win, said Markell. “I wasn’t sure how we were going to come out after being off for two weeks, and I think that the rust really showed in the first period. I don’t think we all got into sync for the whole game, and that was because we were killing penalties and were on power plays. It didn’t allow some of our guys an opportunity to get out there and play.”
The Nanooks (6-5-0, 5-4-0 CCHA) and Buckeyes (10-4-1, 8-2-1 CCHA) will meet for a rematch at 7:05 p.m. Saturday, and the game promises to be lively. During UAF’s second-period two-man advantage, there were four Buckeyes in the box: Beaudoin, Bittner, Pelley, and Andrew Schembri, all veterans, who, after all, were the only guys on the ice who remembered that these teams really don’t like each other, given the number of rookies each squad dresses.
By the end of the game, however, UAF freshman Kyle Greentree was playing as though he felt the history between these programs; he and Pelley were each called for roughing at the end of the third, just before the teams shook hands.
“It was a hard-fought win,” said Markell, who expects more of the same Saturday. “They’ve been showing that they can play better on Saturday nights, but our team can play better too. I’d just like to see some more five-on-five hockey.”