Puck Bucks Ready For NCAA Tournament

It's been a good season for the Ohio State hockey team, but the Buckeyes are not satisfied just getting to the NCAA Tournament. They want to make some noise and reach the Frozen Four in Columbus. We have comments from head coach John Markell, as well as star forwards Tom Fritsche and Rod Pelley.

The Ohio State hockey team has its dancing skates on.

The No. 3-seeded Buckeyes will travel to Minneapolis, Minn., for the 2005 NCAA Championship West Regional at Mariucci Arena. Ohio State (27-10-4, 21-5-2 CCHA) will take on No. 2 seed Cornell (26-4-3, 18-2-2 ECACHL) at 6 p.m. Saturday in a regional semifinal, with No. 1 Minnesota (26-14-1, 17-10-1 WCHA) facing No. 4 Maine (20-12-7, 13-6-5 Hockey East) at 2:30 p.m.in the other semifinal.

The winners will meet in the regional final at 3:30 p.m. Sunday for a berth in the 2005 NCAA Frozen Four, which will be held at OSU's Schottenstein Center.

The Buckeyes, who advanced to the CCHA Super Six title game (a 4-2 loss to Michigan), received an at-large berth into the 2005 NCAA Tournament. This marks the third consecutive year the Buckeyes will compete in the NCAA tournament and the fifth time in program history, all in the last eight years under head coach John Markell.

The veteran coach knows that Cornell will be a tough team to beat.

"They've had a very successful season," Markell said. "I don't think they've lost a game in the last 18. They're a big, physical club. They've got some guys that can scoot.

"They're like us though. They've played all their games on regulation ice and now it's 15 feet wider. They'll have some adjustments to make, and so will we. They've got great goaltending; we think we have good goaltending. They've got a good power play; we think we've got a good power play. Penalty kills have been great; our penalty kills have been great. Both of us don't know how it's going to be refereed. So, we're pretty even circumstances coming down to it. The only thing is they haven't lost any games coming down the pipe, so they've figured out a way to win all those games, which is great."

Markell says it's time for OSU to play its best hockey of the season. The Buckeyes have the scouting report on Cornell, but they are more concerned about playing "Ohio State hockey" as Markell likes to say.

"The focus all week has been on us," Markell said. "What can we bring to the table and let's worry about ourselves. We know what can happen when you focus on the other team and we're not going to worry about that. We think we have a skating team. We think we can transition onto the big ice, but it's going to be up to us to do that, regardless of what Cornell does. They're a big, physical team that would probably prefer to play on a smaller ice surface because that's the way they play the game. But hopefully we can move our feet and draw them into penalties and be that type of team out there. "They're a good defensive team. They want to grind it out in the corners. They want to wear you out. We've played them before and it's been a very even series. Traditionally, we've matched up well against them. Probably this year might be a little different because they might be one of the biggest teams we've ever seen in the nation, and we're not. It will be interesting to see how that plays out on the big ice."

The Buckeyes beat Michigan State 4-1 in the CCHA Super Six semifinals and pretty much knew after that game that they were in the NCAA field.

"Yeah, I had the feeling that if we won one game, we were in," Markell said. "Just the way it was lining up. Obviously we got ourselves into that many wins and the championship game of our league and the second place team in the CCHA should make the NCAA's. That would have been a shame."

* Freshman forward Tom Fritsche is the CCHA's Rookie of the Year and leads the Buckeyes in scoring with 43 points (10 goals, 33 assists). His first college season could not be going much better.

"It's been great," Fritsche said. "The coaches have gave me a great opportunity. They kept putting me in there and let me do what I can do. And my linemates have been helping out. I've been playing with Domenic (Maiani) all year and he's a great player. And we've been switching on and off with the other guys. But it's gone really well."

But did Fritsche expect that he would be the team's leading scorer as a freshman?

"I didn't know too much about the players coming in, but I knew I had potential to do the best I can," he said. "That's all I try and do. I try and go out there and work hard every game and if I get a couple points, I get a couple points. So, it's been going in."

Personal accolades aside, Fritsche is just glad to get a chance to play in his first NCAA Tournament.

"Oh, it's great," he said. "It's going to be great to play in the tournament. We just have to work hard and hopefully we'll do well. I've never experienced it before and I'm excited to see what it's all about. Everyone says it's great. One chance, one shot and you're out. So, hopefully we'll do the best we can."

Fritsche says OSU's confidence level is right where it should be.

"I think it's pretty good," he said. "We lost a hard-fought one to Michigan, but I think our confidence is pretty high. We know we can do well. Cornell is a good skating team – they're a good team – so, we'll see what happens."

Looking ahead, Fritsche is hoping the Buckeyes can win two games and reach the Frozen Four.

"It's in our own building and it gives us extra motivation to get there," he said.

The young star also gave an update on older brother Dan Fritsche, a former second round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

"He's playing in London in the Ontario Hockey League," Tom said. "He's doing well. He's having fun."

* Ohio State junior forward Rod Pelley is second on the team in scoring (22-19-41). He says there are a number of things that the Buckeyes do well, but they still have some refining to do.

"We're good at getting the puck in deep and moving our feet," Pelley said. "I think we've been fairly consistent over the year. A couple slips here and there. But, we're good at taking penalties, and we're good at killing them off. So, there's a few things in there that we can work on like taking less penalties and being disciplined. We can definitely work on that and that's something we've addressed this week."

Pelley enjoys the occasional round of golf, but he'd much rather be playing in the NCAA Tournament.

"Oh, personally, this is what you work for all year and it's really exciting," he said. "You think of all the other teams in the nation right now that are shining up their golf clubs, it's not a fun way to go out. You want to be right to the end. Right until April. It's awesome to be here and I feel privileged. It's just a result of all your hard work and hopefully this year we'll score a goal in the NCAA Tournament."

If Ohio State and Minnesota win their first round games, they will play each other for the right to go to the Frozen Four. The only catch is that the match will be played in the Gophers' home rink.

"I was watching the (OSU) women's basketball game and they were playing Maryland at Maryland and (coach) Jim Foster said (it didn't matter)," Pelley said. "It would be just another road game. You know, it's just playoff hockey. That's the way we are going to have to treat it if we play them. They're at their home rink, and at the Frozen Four, we'd be at our home rink. So, it's just an advantage and the way it goes sometimes. We'll just have to play it like any other game."

Like Markell said, Pelley knew that OSU was in the NCAA Tournament as soon as it knocked off Michigan State in the CCHA semifinals.

"I personally knew that we were pretty much in and I think a lot of guys knew," Pelley said. "But, we wanted that championship. That would have probably moved us up to a two seed and it was another opportunity to win another championship."

Pelley is relieved to be in the tournament. It is what the team has worked for all season.

"It's a long process all year," he said. "You're running in the fall and you're doing weights four times a week at six in the morning. All that stuff leads up to this and when it finally comes and you hear your name called to go to the tournament, it's pretty exciting."

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