COLUMBUS, Ohio — With two shorthanded goals and another strong performance by goaltender Brian Stewart, 10th-seeded Northern Michigan Wildcats upset the No. 7 seed Ohio State Buckeyes,3-2, to win this best-of-three series and advance to the second round of the CCHA playoffs.
“We have a saying we say in our locker room all the time,” said NMU head coach Walt Kyle. “If you want to be a big-time player, play in big-time games.”
No one played bigger for NMU than the freshman Stewart, who made 34 saves in just his third win of the season, and senior forward Darin Olver, who had the unassisted insurance shorthanded goal tonight and two markers in Saturday’s 3-2 overtime win.
“I thought he was phenomenal,” said Kyle of Olver. “He was easily our best forward for the weekend, and his line was easily the best line.”
Stewart replaced starting goaltender Bill Zaniboni in Friday’s 6-2 Ohio State win after Zaniboni gave up three answered by the middle of the second period. That move alone, said Kyle, is what swung the series NMU’s way.
“I think the biggest single thing … is we changed goaltenders. And that’s no slight on Billy [Zaniboni]. We changed goalies and the kid was unbelievable. I mean, he was unbelievable. The save he made in the goalmouth down here in the third, that’s pure athlete, right there.”
The save to which Kyle referred was Stewart’s spread-eagle stop of Corey Elkins’ point-blank shot with five minutes to go in the third, just one of many highlight-reel plays the 6-foot-4 goalie made in the second and third games.
Nick Sirota had a goal and assisted on Zach Tarkir’s shorthander, both in the second period. Buckeye senior defenseman Tyson Strachan had both Ohio State goals, a first-period power-play tally and a six-on-five goal with 13 seconds left in regulation.
The game was marked by three reviewed goals, one that was allowed, and two that were not. Strachan gave the Buckeyes a 1-0 lead after one with his power-play shot from the right point from Sam Campbell and Elkins, and the first reviewed goal could have knotted it for NMU at 16:07 in the first.
Tim Hartung took the puck from behind the OSU net and shot short from left of the crease, but referee Kevin Hall waved off the goal after video review, ruling that goaltender Joseph Palmer had been interfered with because Andrew Sarauer’s left foot had entered the crease before Hartung’s shot when he and Buckeye Kenny Bernard were engaged in front of the net.
Tarkir made it 1-1 at 6:15 in the second on his shorthanded two-on-one break with Sirota. Sirota flew in right and dished to left to Tarkir, who found the opposite side of the net.
Sirota’s even-strength goal at 14:18 was the second reviewed score of the game. On a scramble in front of the Buckeye net, Sirota forced in his own rebound from just outside the crease to make it 2-1 after two.
Olver’s 14th goal of the season at 9:59 in the third, a breakaway shorthander, put the game out of reach for the Buckeyes, who never seemed to recover from NMU’s first shorthanded effort.
OSU pulled Palmer for the last 2:12 of the game and peppered Stewart with shots but were able to solve him only once, with Strachan’s goal at 19:47. With 1:35 left, Tommy Goebel appeared to have scored, but the third reviewed goal of the night was disallowed.
“Any time you get shorthanded goals, it takes a lot of steam out of you,” said OSU head coach John Markell.
Markell said that he had “a problem” with the Sirota goal, alleging that the puck was in Palmer’s glove and Hall did not have a way to determine whether it actually crossed the goal line. “He [Hall] never saw the puck. He just assumed that it was under the glove. If you can’t see the puck cross the line, you can’t make the call. That’s supposed to be the call.”
Palmer finished the night with 21 saves, as the Buckeyes outshot the Wildcats 36-24. NMU was 0-for-4 on the power play, OSU 1-for-4.
With the win, the Wildcats (15-22-2) advance to the second round of the CCHA playoffs, where they’ll face No. 2 seed Michigan for a best-of-three series in Ann Arbor next weekend. The series win this weekend, said Kyle, could not have happened if the Wildcats hadn’t been able to make adjustments through the three games.
“I don’t ever believe you win with a game plan,” said Kyle. “I believe that you win when guys execute a game plan. They have to go out and do it, and they have to win the battles. We put together some things that we think were important to do, and our guys did it.
“It’s hard, sometimes, in a really tight game to stay in that, but we’ve been in so many tight games this year that for us it’s kind of what it is. We’re always in those games. I give those guys a lot of credit for the way they battled and the way they stayed with what we wanted them to do.”
The Buckeyes (15-17-5) bowed out of the first round of the CCHA playoffs for the second year in a row, having lost on the road to Ferris State in two games to end the 2005-06 season.
“I want to compliment Northern Michigan, who came in and did what they had to do to get a win. I thought our kids played hard. Their goaltender stood tall,” said Markell.
“The toughest part about today is saying goodbye to eight seniors. I want to say ‘thank you’ to them for everything they’ve given us and how they represented Ohio State University. That’s the most important thing right now, making sure that they know what they’ve given to Ohio State won’t be forgotten and they’ll forever be a part of our hockey program, and I’m very, very proud of them.”