The Michigan team that lined up on the other side of the ice from the Buckeyes didn't care about OSU's battle for playoff positioning. It didn't care that OSU hadn't lost in its last six home games and was hoping to celebrate a successful parents weekend and senior weekend by winning a pair of rivalry contests.
Instead, Michigan was only intent on improving its 10th-place standing in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association and its 10-18-2 record.
The Wolverines did just that, never trailing on the way to a 5-3 win in front of a season-high 6,772 in Value City Arena.
"I think me as a coach, we could have had our guys understand more what was going to come at them from Michigan – they're fast, physical and desperate," OSU head coach Mark Osiecki said. "They're obviously well-coached. We talked about it to a point, but in the first two periods, I don't think we were ready for that, specifically with our forwards."
The Wolverines had a half-step on the Buckeyes in the first 40 minutes, taking a 2-0 lead after two periods of play. Goals by Max McCormick, Tanner Fritz and Ryan Dzingel allowed the Buckeyes to thrice cut U-M's lead to one in the final frame, but the Buckeyes (13-13-7, 12-8-5-1) never could get an equalizer.
With the loss, Ohio State saw its 4-0-2 streak at home come to a close, and the Buckeyes – who were eliminated from CCHA championship contention but who also found out they could finish no lower than sixth in the league – stayed tied with idle Ferris State for fourth place in the conference.
OSU still has a game in hand on the Bulldogs, but the excitement of the situation – from the playoff impact to the festivities for the weekend – proved a bit much for the Buckeyes to handle.
"The kids were more vocal as they day went on, and even coming in before the game tonight," Osiecki said. "One of our players came off the morning skate, very short, but he's like, ‘I gotta settle down. I gotta get regrouped. I'm so amped up right now.' I think that's a young squad being excited coming into a game. I think they have to find a way to keep their emotions in check."
Fritz, who pushed his CCHA-leading assist total to 21 in conference play, agreed.
"The guys were amped up," he said. "We've been waiting for this all week, but that's not really an excuse. We're mature guys and we have to be better than that. You have to give Michigan respect, they played a really good game tonight.
Alex Guptill tallied twice for the Wolverines while Jacob Trouba had a goal and a pair of helpers as U-M (11-18-2, 8-15-2-2) won on the road for just the second time this season.
Goaltender Steve Racine made 29 saves in the win while appearing in his first game since Jan. 11, as Michigan prevented the Buckeyes' recently soaring offense from truly finding its groove.
"We have to use our speed," Fritz said. "We didn't really use our speed, our transition game. They outcompeted us in pretty much every facet of the game. That's a big thing coach emphasized, so hopefully we can be better at that tomorrow."
Michigan used its power play to take the early advantage, netting man-advantage goals in both the first and second period with OSU senior Devon Krogh in the box both times. Guptill got the Wolverines on the board 15:22 into the game as he snuck into the slot, stayed strong on the puck and lifted a shot over goaltender Brady Hjelle.
Trouba made it 2-0 at 17:29 of the second, sending a rocket of a one-timer over the glove of Hjelle – who deserved better, making a number of outstanding saves among his 29 stops.
"I think getting the lead was important for either team," Michigan head coach Red Berenson said. "They've been a good team at home and they've been a good team in recent games. Tonight, I thought that first goal was an important goal and the second goal. They were both power-play goals, so those were big goals for us."
The way Michigan – third from bottom in Division I in goals allowed – has played defense this year, the lead was not safe as Ohio State finally found its mojo in the third. The Buckeyes proved that just 57 seconds into the period as Fritz laid off a pass in transition to McCormick, who sent an absolute laser under the bar from the top of the left circle.
Ohio State buzzed for the tying goal on an ensuing power play, but the best chance ended up going to Michigan when Andrew Copp broke free. Hjelle made a pad save, turning aside U-M's second shorthanded breakaway of the game.
The teams scored five times in the last 10 minutes as the game turned into a desperate fight to the finish. Luke Moffatt completed a nice Michigan transition move by taking a pass from Boo Nieves and putting his own rebound past Hjelle at 11:48.
Fritz responded by taking a Trouba turnover 120 feet down the ice on a shorthanded breakaway and slipping the puck through Racine's pads to make it 3-2 with 4:52 to go, but the Buckeyes pressed a bit too much and Guptill drove a 2-on-1 pass from Derek DeBlois past Hjelle with 2:33 to go.
Ohio State's final push included a rebound goal by Dzingel with Hjelle pulled and 1:15 on the clock, but DeBlois set the final score with 49.1 seconds on the clock with an empty netter.
The Buckeyes could look to special teams for quick improvement. Despite Fritz's shorthanded goal, OSU lost that battle, allowing Michigan two goals on four power-play chances while finishing 0 for 6 with the man advantage.
"That's the difference in the game," Osiecki said.
OSU and Michigan meet again Saturday night at 7. Seniors Krogh, Hjelle, Brandon Martell, Alex Carlson and Jeff Michael will be honored.
"I think our kids will show up tomorrow and have a great response," Osiecki said.