COLUMBUS, Ohio — With a career-best two goals from Justin Mercier and a 24-save performance by Jeff Zatkoff, the No. 2 Miami RedHawks exposed Ohio State in the opening night of CCHA play, exploiting the inexperienced Buckeyes for 33 shots and a 5-1 win.
Mercier’s tallies were the equalizer and game-winner, midway and late in the first period respectively. Tommy Wingels had a goal and an assist for the ‘Hawks, and Carter Camper and Alec Martinez each had two helpers in the victory.
Miami head coach Enrico Blasi said that the contest — which began with three penalties before the 2:30 mark — was typical of the developing rivalry between the two instate teams, but that the momentum changed after Mercier put the RedHawks ahead 2-1 with his goal at 18:50 in the first.
“I thought they really took it to us the first 10 minutes, 12 minutes of the game,” said Blasi. “I thought it was going to be one of those old-fashioned, back-and-forth. Our focus all week was on that. It didn’t matter what the score was. We knew what kind of game we needed to play tonight, and that it was going to be a battle for 60 minutes.
“Any time you score a goal late in the period, it gives your team some momentum. Going into the second period, I think it did that. Justin Mercier with a great individual play.
“I thought toward the end of the first the game was going back and forth, evening out a little bit, and for sure that was a big goal from Justin and [it] gave us a little bit of life going into the second period. We were able to get third one, and it gave our bench even more life.”
The loss for the Buckeyes comes one week after beating WCHA foe Wisconsin, 5-3, in the title game of the Lefty McFadden Invitational in Dayton. The win over the Badgers was the first in OSU hockey history.
OSU head coach John Markell said that Wisconsin was “a different team” from the RedHawks. “They weren’t a tournament team last year; this was a tournament team laden with veteran guys that played hungry and anticipated well, played together and played a very good road game. A lot of lessons can be learned from this, and that’s exactly what got put to us.”
Ohio State’s only goal was scored by Tom Fritsche, who connected from Tommy Goebel on a shorthanded breakaway at 3:58 in the first.
Given the intensity of the game, it was surprising that only Fritsche’s goal and Mercier’s first involved special teams; Miami went 1-for-6 on the power play, OSU 0-for-4, in a contest that at one point saw three RedHawks and four Buckeyes in the penalty box simultaneously.
“It’s a war every time,” said Blasi. “It’s pretty intense.”
Said Markell, “We knew it was going to be nasty sometimes, and it was.”
The nastiest moment among many came at 7:42 in the third, when Miami’s Jared Palmer literally head-butted OSU’s Johann Kroll when the two exchanged words in front of the Buckeye net. That was a moment that saw Palmer and Kroll each go to the box for cross-checking, joined by Miami’s Nino Musitelli and OSU’s Chris Reed for roughing after the whistle.
Eighteen seconds later, Martinez and Buckeye John Dingle were each given two-minute minors, and at 8:13, OSU’s Jason DeSantis was called for interference, finally giving someone a power play out of the situation.
“The bottom line is that you have to stay out of the penalty box,” said OSU captain Matt McIlvane. “Penalties are going to happen, and you’ve just got to do your best to stay out of the box. We can’t be giving up power plays like that.”
The Buckeyes took the quick 1-0 lead on Fritsche’s goal in an even first period, but Mercier negated that at 12:45 on the RedHawk power play, taking a pass from Wingels and scoring short-side from the right circle to make it 1-1.
Mercier’s second goal with 1:10 to go before the first intermission resulted from his singular effort to rob DeSantis behind the OSU cage when the Buckeye blue liner was preparing to set play in motion in the other direction.
“Coach here stresses getting in first guy, working, forechecking,” said Mercier. “DeSantis made a little spin move behind the net and I just stayed on him. I was able to pick the puck off his stick and I got free in the slot. I just turned and shot it. We had a couple of guys on our team going to the net, creating some traffic, and I got the puck in.
“Any time you go down in a game one-nothing, you need to…re-evaluate your basics, hard work. I think we did a good job of that. We tied the game up, and then getting the lead there going into the second period was big.”
Musitelli scored from the bottom of the right circle at 5:57 in the second, with the RedHawks cycling the puck as though on the power play. The blast hit the top of the net to make it 3-1. Miami never looked back, and OSU never recovered.
Wingels scored his second of the season at 13:49 in the second, a great effort to bring the puck out from the boards and a shot that skimmed the top of the glove of Buckeye goaltender Joseph Palmer to make it 4-1 after three, and Gary Steffes tipped in Alec Martinez’s shot from the left point at 12:14 in the third to cap the game.
“They got a couple of quick ones on us right after that, and I don’t feel like we ever rebounded from that,” said McIlvane. “They had a big momentum swing and I think they just left us in the dust there.”
Palmer finished the night with 28 saves on 33 official shots, although he seemed to field more than just the eight registered Miami shots on goal in the first period. The RedHawks outgunned the Buckeyes 16-7 in the second.
“I thought Joe was stellar,” said McIlvane. “I thought we had a lot of letdowns in our defensive zone…myself included.”
The Buckeyes (2-1-0, 0-1-0 CCHA) and the RedHawks (3-0-0, 1-0-0 CCHA) will meet Sunday at 6:05 p.m. in Oxford to finish their first home-and-home series of the season.