But it’s not false bravado the Buckeyes (13-18-3) carry into their quarterfinal game Thursday (4:30 p.m.) against fourth-seed Penn State, who finished one spot above them in the conference standings.
The winner plays No. 1-seed Minnesota at 4:30 p.m. Friday to earn a spot in the championship at 8 p.m. Saturday. In the other quarterfinal, Michigan plays Wisconsin Thursday for the right to face Michigan State on Friday. All games are on BTN.
There’s reason for hope, beginning with the Buckeyes’ 6-3-1 record in the past 10 games, including four wins and a tie in the past six to conclude the regular season.
“The guys are really confident. The swagger is good,” senior forward Matt Johnson told BSB. “You look at the teams we’ve played the last couple of weeks. We’ve played really well against them.”
There are other factors why OSU is optimistic:
- As was the case last season in the inaugural conference tournament at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., OSU must win three games in three days to earn the automatic qualifier to the NCAA Tournament. There is no other route for the Buckeyes.
- It almost happened a year ago. The Buckeyes beat Michigan State in overtime before upsetting top-ranked Minnesota in the semifinals.
OSU then took a 4-2 lead on Wisconsin in the title game when Tanner Fritz scored with 6:52 left in the third but the Badgers scored twice in the ensuing 48 seconds to tie the score at 4 and beat the Buckeyes in overtime.
“It was a good experience for us,” Fritz said. “Looking back on what we did, we pretty much won three games. We were five minutes away from a championship. We have that in the back of our minds. We know what it takes to win there. Not all the teams have that experience.”
- Half of the team played at Joe Louis Arena in the 2013 Central Collegiate Hockey Association semifinals, a 3-1 loss to Notre Dame.
That familiarity could help the Buckeyes get over the “wow” factor of playing in one of the iconic buildings in the NHL for the first time since then.
“Freshman year we pulled up there and they didn’t have a dressing room ready for us,” junior defenseman Sam Jardine said. “We ended up airing our stuff out in the Red Wings’ locker room.
“For a young guy like me, seeing the stalls for guys like (Henrik) Zetterberg and (Pavel) Datsyuk, I have to admit I was a little bit starstruck or shell-shocked. I’m not sure my head was where it needed to be.
“This time around we’re playing in a historic building, and that’s pretty neat, but I’ll be there with my teammates for one reason and that’s to win a Big Ten championship.”
- The Buckeyes won three of four this season vs. the Nittany Lions (18-14-4), including consecutive 5-3 victories Feb. 27-28 in Value City Arena for their first series sweep.
“It’s always nice to have good momentum and confidence,” OSU coach Steve Rohlik said. “We know every game is going to be tough. We know we have to play our best on Thursday but certainly over the last month and a half we’ve made some good strides and ultimately we’re playing our best hockey right now.”
Despite the recent outcomes vs. the Nittany Lions, they are a formidable opponent. In the Feb. 27 game, OSU led only 3-2 with 12 minutes left but got goals 57 seconds apart from sophomore Josh Healey and freshman Luke Stork to seal the victory.
The following night the Nittany Lions were up 3-2 early in the third but the Buckeyes scored three goals in a 4:17 span beginning at the 9:18 mark.
In the first series Jan. 9-10 at Penn State, the Buckeyes won the opener 5-4 in overtime after squandering a four-goal, third-period lead. The Nittany Lions won the rematch 4-1.
Penn State leads the nation with 39.4 shots per game and is ninth in scoring with a 3.28 average.
“They throw pucks to the net from everywhere on the ice and hope for bounces and they’ve got a pretty good power play as well,” Jardine said. “For us it’s staying disciplined, staying with our guys in the defensive end and outmuscling them.”
Penn State is led by junior forward Casey Bailey, a first team All-Big Ten selection. He leads the conference with 22 goals and is five off the national lead.
Rohlik wants his top guns to come through in big games, namely points leader Fritz (11 goals, 15 assists, 26 points); goal leader junior Anthony Greco (15); Johnson (13 goals); sophomore forward Nick Schilkey (nine goals) and league all-freshman team selection forward Matthew Weis (8-14-22).
But Rohlik said the difference between winning and losing could come down to depth.
“This time of the year it’s the guys you might not think of that all of a sudden are going to come up with the big goals, he said. “ That’s what I expect because we play four lines and don’t really depend on one guy.
“Ultimately you need your go-to guys to be good but for this team but I wouldn’t be shocked if you see a Chad Niddery (two goals) score a big goal for us.”
He has confidence, too, in sophomore goaltender Christian Frey (8-11-2, 3.17 goals against average and .906 save percentage). He was named to the conference’s all-freshman team last season but only recently has returned to that form.
Johnson figures in his last go-around it’s time to put it all together.
“I was thinking about it last night,” he said. "Every year we’ve gotten better. My first year, we lost in the (CCHA) first round. The second year, we lost in the second round and last year we made it to the championship and lost in OT.
“It’s a good thing we’re moving in the right direction.”
Penn State’s Guy Gadowsky on Monday was named Big Ten Coach of the Year ... OSU has at least one goal from a defenseman in four of the past six games ... Penn State has played four games in three NHL venues this season: Madison Square Garden in New York, Philadelphia's Wells Fargo Center and CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh (two games) ... The Buckeyes are 11-13-0 in postseason games in Joe Louis Arena ... OSU senior forward Nick Oddo (upper body) is not expected to play. He has missed the past three games ... The Buckeyes are averaging just 6.4 penalty minutes over the past 10 games and are averaging 3.2 goals while allowing 2.6 during the span.