ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Two in 20.
Those numbers helped explain the story of fourth-seeded Princeton against top-seeded Ohio State in the first semifinal of the NCAA Midwest Regional at the PPL Center.
OSU registered a 4-2 victory Saturday by scoring two goals in a 20-second span in the first period, and added two more in the third to move on to Sunday’s regional final.
“The last couple of games we haven’t started the hottest, and that’s something we addressed all week,” said OSU captain Mason Jobst, who tallied the Buckeyes’ first goal. “To come out and get two goals in the first period gave us a lot of confidence for the rest of the game.”
“We got a few good bounces tonight and it was nice to get the lead,” said Ohio State coach Steve Rohlik. “We are a better hockey team when we get the lead, and I thought our guys did just enough tonight to get the win.”
“The game didn’t go our way,” said Princeton coach Ron Fogarty, whose team’s nation-best seven-game winning steak, including last week’s ECAC Hockey championship, was snapped. “The pain we’re feeling is temporary, and what our guys did this season will be unforgettable for themselves, our fans and alumni.”
After an initial feeling-out period, OSU started to stir matters offensively with just over nine minutes left in the first session. Dakota Joshua skated in from the right side on a partial breakaway, only to have Princeton’s Ryan Ferland make a pad save.
The momentum swung fully over to OSU after the third consecutive holding penalty of the opening period, this one on Princeton’s Matthew Thom at 12:52. The Buckeyes broke through on their second power play of the afternoon as Jobst took a cross-slot pass from linemate Tanner Laczynski and wristed home a low shot from the left side at 13:32.
“I had two turnovers on our first power play, and I was fortunate we got another one,” said Jobst. “I told Ronnie [Hein] to try and go to the front. … We had a good screen and a great pass by Tanner.”
The puck had barely dropped at center ice when OSU gained the Princeton zone again and went up by two, this time on a tip-in by Kevin Miller at 13:52. Hein skated down the right wing boards and threaded a pass across to Miller, who got his stick on the puck and deflected it up and over Ferland’s left shoulder for a 2-0 lead in just 20 seconds.
The teams were skating 4-on-4 late in the opening stanza after penalties were called 70 seconds apart on Princeton’s Eric Robinson and OSU’s Freddy Gerard, which ultimately became a 5-on-3 advantage for the Tigers when the Buckeyes’ Matt Miller was whistled off for interference with 16 seconds left.
Princeton had 38 seconds remaining on the two-man advantage at the start of the second period but came up short on its best chance when Max Veronneau just missed putting home a feed at the left post as the 5-on-3 ended.
“Coming in, it was the best power play in the country (Princeton) against the best PK in the country,” said Jobst. “Obviously, we took more penalties than we would like but I thought our penalty kill did a good job.”
The Tigers then had to weather their own short-handed storm as the Buckeyes were awarded a five-minute power play only 1:37 into the middle period. Josh Teves was called for contact to the head of an OSU player, and also received a game misconduct penalty that ended his afternoon.
“The guys played hard, stepping up for him,” Fogarty said of Teves. “He’s the top point-per-game defenseman in the country. … He’ll play a lot of hockey beyond college.”
Fogarty also said the right call was made by the officials.
Princeton killed off the full five minutes and got the best scoring chance of all in that span when ECAC championship overtime hero Max Becker was sprung on a short-handed breakaway. OSU goaltender Sean Romeo (23 saves) waited his opponent out, and then stopped Becker’s stuff-in shot at the right post.
Romeo also made in-close saves on Liam Grande and Ryan Kuffner before the period ended to keep it scoreless, and then did likewise early in the final stanza against Becker and Robinson.
“We had some really bad mental breakdowns at times,” said Rohlik. “Sean’s a rock. We’ve had tremendous confidence in him all year, and he came up big when we needed him tonight.”
Romeo’s teammates aided him by blocking 21 shots in all. Many came on Princeton power plays, as the Tigers finished 1-for-7 with a man advantage.
“They did great. That’s kind of been something we preached all year,” said Romeo, who began his college career at Maine and made his NCAA tournament debut. “It makes my job a lot easier when you have guys buying in like that, blocking so many shots.”
After OSU killed off an early third-period penalty, Philadelphia Flyers draft choice Laczynski scored his first goal in what could be his future minor-league professional home by redirecting a right-wing pass by Gerard at 3:55 for a 3-0 Buckeyes lead.
Gerard then made it 4-0 at 10:48, as he slapped home a shot from the left wing boards after Luke Stork fired wide from the right circle.
The Tigers, though, didn’t go quietly. After OSU’s Sam McCormick went off for hooking with 35 seconds left in the third, Matt Nelson wristed in a high shot from the left point to put Princeton on the board with 26 seconds left.
David Hallisey then chopped in a rebound from his knees with 10 seconds left for the final margin, on an assist from Nelson, just as Hallisey had assisted on Nelson’s goal. Senior classmates Becker and Joe Grabowski also drew assists in their final game for the Tigers.
OSU outshot Princeton overall, 28-25, although the Tigers had 12 of the game’s last 22 shots on goal and also killed off five of six Buckeyes power plays.
“It felt good having all the seniors on the ice,” said Nelson, who quipped he was not a goal scorer. “Our coaches are good at doing that, and it was definitely a bonus not getting blanked.”
Hallisey was also pleased the Tigers went down fighting, as they have all season.
“The senior class scoring twice in the last 35 seconds was a lot of fun,’ he remarked, “Proving people wrong [this season] was a lot of fun.”
Ferland, the ECAC tournament’s most outstanding player, finished with 24 saves in his NCAA tournament debut before giving way to senior netminder Ben Halford with under two minutes remaining in regulation, part of Princeton’s all-senior lineup in the waning moments.
“Our seniors did something special,” Fogarty said of the Class of 2018 that won all of four games as freshmen before winning an ECAC title in their final season. “They did something that was spectacular for Princeton hockey.”
Princeton finished perhaps its most successful season ever at 19-13-4 overall. OSU, the Big Ten runner-up this season, improved to 25-9-5 and will face the winner of the second semifinal between defending NCAA champion Denver and regional host Penn State at 6:30 p.m. ET Sunday.
“At the end of the day it’s exciting to win a hockey game and we’ll celebrate a little tonight,” said Rohlik, “but we know we’re playing one of the best teams in the country tomorrow no matter who wins tonight, and we need to be prepared for that.”