For the third year, the Central Collegiate Hockey Association matches teams 9-12 in the league's final standings in three-game series at seeds five through eight. Ohio State will be looking for its first win ever under that setup.
The Buckeyes went on the road in 2006 as the No. 10 seed before losing two games in a row to Ferris State. Last year, the Buckeyes were the seventh seed and hosted Northern Michigan, jumping out to a 1-0 lead before dropping the final two games of the series.
This year, Ohio State faces its longest odds yet. The Buckeyes finished 7-18-3 to take 11th place in the CCHA, drawing a 10-hour bus trip to face No. 6-seed Northern Michigan (12-13-3) in a best-of-three series starting tonight at 7:30 p.m.
"I think it's a new season," head coach John Markell said. "Certainly I think we're playing some of our better hockey. If you enter a season like we did this year you don't quite know what you're going to have with such a young freshman class. Honestly I feel better about our chances going up there than if we were going up there at the first of the year."
The Buckeyes, a team with 14 freshmen on its roster that dressed at least 10 of the youngsters on most nights, have a brutal 2-10-1 start to blame for their troubles. Since that time, Ohio State has defeated three ranked teams – knocking off No. 2 Michigan Nov. 30, No. 15 Harvard Dec. 29 and No. 9 Notre Dame Feb. 22 – and gone 9-13-3 overall and 7-11-3 in the league.
While those numbers aren't quite at the break-even mark, they show an OSU team that has been playing better hockey than their overall body of work would tend to suggest.
That play has continued over the last two weeks, as Ohio State earned three points from No. 9 Notre Dame Feb. 22-23 in South Bend, then fought No. 5 Miami – a team that has been No. 1 in the nation for much of the year – tooth and nail on the way to two one-goal losses Feb. 26 and 29.
Now the goal becomes taking that improved quality of play and translating it to playoff hockey. The good news is that the past couple of series have felt like the intense experience the Buckeyes have upcoming.
"We played Miami last week and we lost both games but it was definitely a battle just to get shots off and do the little things that you take for granted, so I do think it's kind of getting to the playoff mentality because everybody's been trying to prepare the best that they can," freshman forward Peter Boyd said.
Eight Buckeye seniors know that their careers are on the line over the weekend. Forwards Tom Fritsche, Tommy Goebel, John Dingle, Kyle Hood and captain Matt McIlvane, defensemen Johann Kroll and Jason DeSantis and goaltender Phil Lauderdale watched the eight-man senior class before them finish their careers last year against this same NMU team and will go into the series at the Berry Events Center on high alert.
"Being the last one for me, I've been thinking about it a lot the past week," Dingle said. "I don't think I'm going to prepare any different and I don't think the seniors are. If anything I think we're a little more excited and ready to go."
That series continues to sit in the brains of the current seniors. The Buckeyes opened up a 1-0 lead in the series thanks to a commanding 6-2 win during the first game at the OSU Ice Rink and looked on their way to advancing in the playoffs. But in Game 2, NMU benched senior goaltender Bill Zaniboni and put freshman Brian Stewart between the pipes, and the greenhorn backstopped the Green and Gold to back-to-back 3-2 wins to end Ohio State's season.
"That's actually a thing that I think still comes back to haunt a few of us, winning the first game and losing the next two," Goebel said. "Obviously anybody can win any game here in college hockey."
But the most important contributors might be the Buckeye freshmen. Many of them have shown the ability to step up and play in big games, with center Patrick Schafer netting the game-winning goal Feb. 22 at Notre Dame and the freshmen getting all four Buckeye goals against Miami, with Kyle Reed scoring twice and Corey Toy and John Albert getting single tallies.
"It's going to fall in the hands of our freshmen too, and the big thing is to be able to play as a team against another team whether you're a freshman or a senior," Markell said. "We need our young guys being as spirited as our seniors think they might be because of what happened last year."
Ohio State and Northern split a two-game series in Value City Arena Feb. 15-16, with the Wildcats winning the first game 2-0 thanks to 46 saves by Stewart and the Buckeyes coming back – thanks to a last-second goal by Goebel – to earn a 3-2 win on their Senior Night.
"They're a typical Northern team," Dingle said. "They grind. They're really defensive minded, the goalie stood on his head. I know that they're going to be thinking of that win we squeaked out at the end there, and they played us hard both nights."