This Week in Big Ten Hockey: With conference regular-season title up in the air, Ohio State knows ‘it’s anybody’s ballgame’

Wyatt Ege (7 - Ohio State) (2018 Omar Phillips)
Wyatt Ege has collected three goals and 11 points this season from the Ohio State back end (photo: Omar Phillips).

Even though Ohio State is sitting in second place, the Buckeyes have an opportunity to nab their second consecutive Big Ten regular-season title this weekend.

Ohio State and Minnesota have 37 points, four behind Penn State. The Nittany Lions are idle this weekend, providing an opportunity for the teams behind them to leapfrog into first place.

“All the coaches probably would have agreed before the year that you would probably see this,” Ohio State coach Steve Rohlik said. “All seven teams have a chance and that’s kind of lived up to the billing.”

OSU picked up a conference sweep over Michigan State last weekend to put themselves in the position to catch Penn State. It was the first sweep for the Buckeyes since they opened the second half of the season with two victories over Colgate at home.

“It’s college hockey and, especially in our league, it’s tough to win once, nonetheless twice on a weekend,” Rohlik said. “So, you don’t see it too often and when you do, you take it and run and get prepared for the next week.”

Friday’s victory over the Spartans was an impressive 1-0 victory. On Saturday, the team needed to come back a couple of times to win 4-2.

“Any time you get a win in our league right now, it’s big; it’s anybody’s ballgame,” Rohlik said. “Coming off of a bye week, sometimes you’re not sure how you’re going to play, but I thought we played a decent road game on Friday. We probably played a better collective game on Friday than we did on Saturday, but we found a way to come back Saturday.”

Rohlik said that there was one thing he wanted the team to focus on after Saturday.

“The biggest thing, probably for everybody, is puck management,” he said. “You’ve got to take care of the puck. That’s really the key at this point. You’ve got to make teams go 200 (feet) and you’ve got to make it hard on teams and, to me, that’s about puck management.”

Senior Tanner Laczynski leads Ohio State with 29 points this season. The Buckeyes have gotten decent depth scoring behind him with nine other players having 10 or more points.

“Before the season if you were going to ask me, we’re going to win hockey games because of our depth and scoring being spread out a bit,” Rohlik said. “We just can’t count on one guy, that’s just not us. Obviously (Laczynski) is doing his thing, but certainly we’re not going to win hockey games with one guy, and I think everyone on our team would agree with that.”

Wisconsin travels to Columbus this weekend to try and spoil Ohio State’s chances at first place. The Badgers have struggled this season but are coming off a home sweep of Arizona State where their offense was clicking.

“Everyone understands, [and] our guys know at the end of the year you want to start to try to play your best hockey at this point,” Rohlik said. “Obviously, we’re playing a very skilled hockey team that’s coming in and we’ve got to try to be at our best, that’s what we keep talking about.

“We’ve got to keep getting better and we’ve got to do that during the week and hopefully put ourselves in a position to compete and play our best on Friday to give ourselves a chance.”

Minnesota prepares for Michigan

Like the Buckeyes, Minnesota also has an opportunity to vault itself over Penn State this weekend.

The Gophers host Michigan at home in a matchup between two of the hottest teams in the conference in the second half of the season, even though both had a rough time last weekend.

“We’ve got to win a game right now to get home ice, and they’ve got to win, too,” Minnesota oach Bob Motzko said at the Gophers’ media availability on Tuesday. “So, it all sets up this weekend. There’s really not more to say on that. It’s that time of year. It’s a great time of year.”

Motzko said he doesn’t like to talk about the conference standings or the PairWise, but he has noticed that his players are bringing up the subject.

“I have to remind them this week because this is the time they know it,” he said. “I was in the training room and I heard them talking about the PairWise and who was No. 12, who was No. 11. I said, ‘What’s got us here?’ And one of the guys said, ‘We’ve got to win our series.’ We’re 1-0-1 with Michigan, and that’s what we’ve got to put our whole focus on.”

He compared the college game to the NHL, saying that college players have more benchmarks in the season to worry about.

“In the NHL, it’s really about one thing, the Stanley Cup,” Motzko said. “We have this crazy thing in college of league championships and senior night and playoffs and getting into the tournament. There’s this emotional roller coaster at the end of the year that I’ve seen hurt teams. Our focus is on Michigan Friday night, and we need to win the series.”

The Gophers took five of six points from Michigan in early November, but Motzko said they’re prepared for a different looking team this weekend.

“They’re playing really well, and (Mel Pearson’s) got them dialed in right now,” he said. “You can tell, the biggest thing I can see is exactly mirroring our team, I see kids playing with confidence that I didn’t see out of their team early.”

One thing the Gophers can probably count on is consistent goaltending.

Junior Jack LaFontaine has gotten most of the recent starts and has a 7-7-5 record with a 2.81 GAA this season. Motzko said he doesn’t name a No. 1 goalie, just the starter for each individual game, so it’s up to LaFontaine or freshman Jared Moe to grab the spot in net.

“I pick starters, they decide who’s No. 1. I’ve never decided a No. 1 goalie,” said Motzko. “Right now, both of our guys are giving us goaltending and right now, that can reflect a team going in the right direction.”

Michigan State looks to rebound against Notre Dame

Since rising to the top of the conference standings a few weeks ago, Michigan State has hit a bump in the road.

The Spartans have dropped five of their last six contests, including back-to-back sweeps at the hands of Michigan and Ohio State.

Even so, coach Danton Cole remains positive.

“A lot changes in two weeks and just as much can change in the next two weeks,” Cole said. “That’s how we’ve been looking at things. Some things bounce your way and sometimes they don’t.”

Home ice in the Big Ten playoffs has become a long shot, but Cole said it’s important to stick with it and said that he’s expecting an upset of two with how close the conference has been this season.

“You have to be resolute about it, you have to be unwavering in your belief, and you have to get right back on that horse,” Cole said. “Two weeks ago, we were in first place. We’re not a lot different than that team.”

Michigan State heads to Notre Dame this weekend. The Spartans took four of six points from the Irish in November.

“Notre Dame’s pretty consistent,” Cole said. “I think they kind of went through what we are right now where sometimes the puck’s just not going in. They have that experience of sticking with it. They played a heck of a series against Michigan last weekend and limited them and defended extremely well, so I expect they’ll play the same way against us.”