Now, it's cut-and-dry.
Ohio State fell to No. 15 Miami by a 3-0 score on Friday night in Oxford, eliminating the Buckeyes from a chance at a first-round bye in the CCHA playoffs.
The team's playoff fate will now come down to Saturday night's regular-season finale. With a win, Ohio State will assure itself of hosting the first round of the CCHA playoffs next weekend at OSU Ice Rink. With a loss, the Buckeyes might have to hit the road.
"It's key," senior co-captain Sean Duddy said after OSU fell to 1-8-4 in 2012. "I've been here for four years. Home-ice advantage is huge in the playoffs. I've been on both ends of it and it's a great advantage to have. We still control our destiny in that respect, so it's very important for us."
Tomorrow at Value City Arena, the Buckeyes will have to figure out a few things – how to stop Miami junior Reilly Smith and how to best senior goaltender Connor Knapp. Smith scored the first two goals for the RedHawks (20-13-2, 14-11-2-1) to reach 25 goals on the year – second in the nation – while Knapp posted his 12th career shutout to tie the Miami record.
Those two performances out of Miami's big guns helped send the 3,502 in Steve Cady Arena home happy on the team's Senior Night – and the RedHawks clinched possession of this year's edition of BSB's Ohio Cup. Now, the Buckeyes (15-12-5, 11-11-5-1) will try to flip the script Saturday night.
"We've had a good response all year," head coach Mark Osiecki said. "I wouldn't expect anything less. The character that we have in the locker room is outstanding. We expect our response to a tough game will be very good."
The truth is, Ohio State will also have to play a better overall game, as the Buckeyes had little time and space in the RedHawks zone, while Miami forced a number of turnovers in the OSU end that would have resulted in more goals if not for the stellar performance of Buckeye goaltender Cal Heeter.
"We're one of the lucky teams that has a goalie that can keep us in the game and win games for us," Duddy said after Heeter finished with 36 saves. "When we don't put goals on the board, it's hard for him to win games for us. He did a fantastic job. We just have to do a better job of playing in front of him."
In fact, it was just one goal that made the difference, and Smith scored the winner 16:44 into the first period. He had been denied a few times early by Heeter, but the RedHawks won a wall battle at that point, leading to Austin Czarnik feeding Smith in the right circle for a snipe past Heeter.
It was nearly 2-0 just seconds later but Heeter slid to his left on a 2-on-1 to stop Tyler Biggs when a goal looked all but assured.
The OSU senior was just as good early in the second, making a number of point-blank saves mostly off of Buckeye turnovers, before the Buckeyes finally settled in midway through the second.
"Obviously Miami is going to come out and play the way they did in the first period," Osiecki said. "It's their Senior Night, last home game here, you couldn't expect anything different with that many seniors and quality players that they have. I thought we weathered the storm."
Ohio State even could have tied the score at the midway point of the period but Knapp, who entered second in the nation in goals-against average, made a save that equaled Heeter's on Biggs in the opening frame on the Buckeyes' first good chance. Max McCormick put a shot on goal on a rush, but Knapp left the rebound in the slot for Tanner Fritz before scooping up the Buckeye's second effort with the glove.
McCormick had already raised his hands in the air in celebration, not believing Knapp could make the stop, but it was just that kind of night for the visitors, who were outshot 39-28. That prompted Osiecki to reunite the line of freshmen Fritz, McCormick and Ryan Dzingel, but Miami's veteran defensive corps kept them at bay.
"We tried to generate something, get a spark," Osiecki said. "Let's be honest, they have 10 seniors – three seniors and three juniors on the blue line, and they're all very good. They played very sound. It was hard to penetrate."
McCormick tipped a shot by Clark Cristofoli wide early in the third and Darik Angeli fired wide on a 2-on-1 midway through the frame, but the Buckeyes' chances faded as those shots went off the mark.
Finally, Smith put the game away with 5:21 left with a near carbon copy of his first goal, firing from the right circle and celebrating after the shot climbed over Heeter and landed over the line despite the goaltender's desperate dive backwards.
Blake Coleman got the insurance marker with 2:18 to play, scoring off an OSU turnover.