Ohio State put 39 shots on net Friday in a Big Ten semifinal vs. league champ Minnesota, and more than a handful had Buckeye fans, players and even casual observers thinking this had to be the moment.
Leading scorer and senior captain Tanner Fritz left alone in the low left circle in the first period. Classmate Chad Niddery cutting and taking a cross-crease feed early in the second. Just about every moment of the third, such as when junior Tyler Lundey rang the pipe.
There were chances, but whether it was because the Buckeyes simply were snakebitten or Minnesota goaltender Adam Wilcox was too strong, none hit the twine. Wilcox stopped all 39 shots on goal and Minnesota took the win, 3-0, to end Ohio State’s season at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
The Buckeyes, who finished fifth in the six-team Big Ten regular-season standings but went 6-3-1 down the stretch with wins against every other league foe in that run, ended the year 14-19-3 under second-year head coach Steve Rohlik.
“Obviously I can't ask for much more out of our team today,” Rohlik said. “They only gave me everything they've got. Twenty-two shots in the third period, you know, this team is relentless. Like I say, I'm proud of this team. We had a good run here toward the end, and I'm even prouder of our eight seniors. What they've done for our program and they've sent this program in the right direction. So, obviously, I thank them.
“The bounces, it is what it is. Minnesota did the job and got the job done tonight. But, again, I'm awfully proud of our team.”
The game ended the careers of eight Buckeye seniors, all of whom were in the lineup. Fritz, who left the quarterfinal win vs. Penn State momentarily with a shoulder injury, led the way, but there were other gutty efforts. Niddery had two crucial shot blocks and nearly scored on the rush in the third. Nick Oddo entered the lineup banged up with a shoulder injury that caused him to miss four games but had his own golden chance denied by a sprawling Wilcox. Fellow forwards Matt Johnson and Darik Angeli as well as defensemen Al McLean, Justin DaSilva and Clark Cristofoli did what they could.
“The foundation has been built from past years before we were here,” Fritz said after his final college game. “It keeps getting better and better. The culture here keeps getting better and better, the staff is great. We're always pushing to get better, and I know they're going to do that in the following years. The only way to go is up from here.”
Ohio State took the fight to Minnesota (22-12-3), holding a 39-23 edge in shots by the end including 11-9 in the first and 22-8 in the final frame.
“Our team felt really good going into this weekend,” Johnson said. “You look at our last 10 games and I thought we were taking strides in the right direction and the way we wanted to play. We really found our identity and started to roll with it. Going off of last year we were very confident, just like this year we beat every team in the conference. There was nobody we didn't think we could beat.”
Wilcox was the difference, posting his sixth shutout of the year and 13th of his career to tie the Minnesota record. The win was the 72nd of his career, most among active Division I goalies.
“The main thing for me was holding my ground and making sure I'm at a good depth,” he said. “I worked with (goaltending coach) Justin Johnson all week, and getting the angles in and having my feet set and not getting too aggressive and too out there. I think that's a big thing especially on the smaller rink when pucks were going to be bouncing everywhere. There were a lot of weird bounces tonight; fortunately they were on our side.”
He was picked up by goals by Sam Warning, Vinni Lettieri and Travis Boyd. After Minnesota had rang a few posts behind Christian Frey in the first, Warning scored the winner at 7:51 of the second, getting loose in low right circle and putting a wrister over the OSU goalie’s glove and under the bar.
With Ohio State pressing in the third – sophomore Nick Schilkey had some grade-A chances – Lettieri got the separation goal. In transition, defenseman Ben Marshall wasn’t picked up and shot it from the left circle; the puck squirted through Frey and would have gone in regardless, but the cousin of incoming OSU recruit Tyler Nanne pushed it over the line with 9:15 to go.
With OSU on the power play, Rohlik chose to pull Frey with 4:43 to go, but the Gophers took control and Boyd rifled a puck 170 feet up the gut for an empty-netter.
Ohio State continued to push, but it was to no avail in the end.
“I think everyone in that room believed that we were going to tie up that game, even when they went up 2-0,” junior defenseman Sam Jardine said. “That’s just the way we are. I thought we competed right to the end and obviously Wilcox had a good game. You have to give him props for that, but we believed.”
Notes: Ohio State fell to 3-2 all-time in Big Ten tournament play. … The Golden Gophers are now 19-3-1 all-time against the Buckeyes and went 4-1 this year. … It was Warning’s fifth career goal for the Gophers against OSU. … Minnesota is 11-3-1 over its last 15 games. … OSU was shut out for the first time since Jan. 25 at Michigan State. … Frey finished with 20 saves.