Rarely this year have they looked further away than they did for long stretches Saturday night against No. 5 Miami.
The rivals from Oxford showed why they are so highly ranked, using smothering defense to limit the Buckeyes to 23 shots – 12 in the first two periods and just three on five power plays – in a 3-1 victory in front of 5,129 evenly split partisans.
"It's a team defense approach," Miami head coach Enrico Blasi said. "You have to do it together. When the guys are doing that, then our defense looks good because they can keep their gaps right and there's not much room to do anything."
Miami freshman Ryan McKay entered with a 0.48 goals-against average on the year and showed why, stopping 22 tries while improving to 3-1-1 in his career.
On the Ohio State side, the offensive woes continued as the Buckeyes got only one goal in each of the two games in the series. The Buckeyes tallied just 35 times in the first 18 games, went four straight power plays without a shot on Saturday night and saw 175:10 elapse without a tally by a forward before Max McCormick scored in the third period.
"It's gotta be frustrating," head coach Mark Osiecki said. "We have some pretty talented kids in there but I think we as coaches have to hold them accountable in practice. They have to do some things around the dirty areas in front of the net. That's where you have to go to score."
Ohio State goes into the break at 7-6-5 overall and in fourth place in the CCHA with a 6-3-3-1 record. After winning five of six, the Buckeyes – who were eliminated from contention for the BSB Ohio Cup this weekend – ended the first half with four winless contests.
Still, Osiecki was pleased with Ohio State's first-half effort given the number of injuries, lack of home games and far-flung road trips the Buckeyes endured.
"Are we a ways away from where we want to be? Yep. Is it going it going to take time? Yep," Osiecki said. "Is our foundation somewhat getting there? Yep, but it's not going to happen overnight.
"The first half of the year on paper was a difficult first half – tough travel, now you throw in all the injuries that you had. … I like where the program is. We could have been way worse off in the first half and our guys battled their rear ends off to get where they are now."
Alex Gacek, Blake Coleman and World Junior Championships camp selectee Riley Barber scored for the RedHawks, who are tied for first in the CCHA at 8-3-3-3 (11-3-4 overall).
Again, Ohio State senior Brady Hjelle stood out between the pipes. Making his sixth straight start, Hjelle turned aside 31 tries, many with cat-quick reactions against a stacked Miami forward unit.
"He made some unbelievable saves," said Osiecki, who will coach the U.S. WJC team.
Miami had the better of the play in the first, holding an 11-5 edge in shots, and finally got the goal it was looking for with 23.4 seconds left on the clock. Cody Murphy passed the puck to Alex Gacek as they skated into the zone, and Gacek made no mistakes with a weighty wrister that beat Hjelle from 40 feet out over the glove.
"I thought our guys were into it right off the bat," Blasi said. "To get a goal in the last minute, that's a huge momentum thing, then to get a power-play goal, that's huge."
Things didn't get much better for the Buckeyes in the second, as Blasi referenced, though both sides had scoring chances. Hjelle flashed his glove impressively on an early Miami power play, but there was nothing he could do when Blake Coleman put a rebound by him at 3:33 of the period to make it 2-0.
Miami could have made it even worse throughout the frame, but Hjelle was on his game throughout, turning aside a handful of odd-man rushes by the visitors.
Ohio State had its chances as well – Ryan Dzingel had a breakaway and a 3-on-2 chance turned aside by McKay – but the best was set up by the Miami goaltender. McKay lunged out to bat aside a loose puck but hit it right into a gaggle of bodies, so he could only watch as Dzingel sent it toward his cage, but the puck glanced off the post and rolled away harmlessly.
Ohio State finally got its offense in a little bit of gear in the third, and it paid off when McCormick got alone in the slot, took a pass from below the goal line from Alex Szczechura and roofed a shot with 13:40 to go.
McCormick had another try when he deked in on McKay with five minutes to play, but the Miami keeper was game and Barber finished things off with an empty-net goal with 25.6 seconds on the clock.
The teams will begin the second half with familiar foes – each other. They will meet Dec. 28 in the first round of the Three Rivers Classic in CONSOL Energy Center.