They know their situation quite well going into tonight's game at Value City Arena against No. 2 Notre Dame at 8 p.m. Even at 17-8-3 on the year and tied for fourth place in the CCHA, the Buckeyes are not locks for postseason NCAA tournament play; in fact, if the tourney started today, Ohio State likely would be watching on television.
The next few weekends provide a major chance to improve their standing in the PairWise rankings, which determine the NCAA field. At 15th, the Buckeyes need to move up at least a spot – the 15th- and 16th-place teams usually don't make the 16-team field because of the two automatic bids given to mid-major conferences – before the end of the season.
To do that, raising both their RPI and their record against teams under consideration (TUCs) for the NCAA tournament – two of the four comparisons used in the PairWise – are essential tasks.
The Buckeyes, just 4-5-1 against TUCs this year, have the chance to do just that with wins over the last eight regular-season games. Six of the contests will come against TUCs, starting tonight as well as Sunday at 2 p.m. against the Fighting Irish. After a two-game trip to last-place Michigan State, the Buckeyes get No. 4 Michigan at home for two and then finish the slate Feb. 27-28 with a home-and-home against No. 8 Miami (Ohio).
"This is definitely the playoffs," sophomore center John Albert said. "We have a tough schedule ahead of us. We just have to focus on what's ahead and hopefully do the best we can."
Head coach John Markell has pegged a 5-3 record over the final stretch as necessary for the Buckeyes. The 10 points that would result would likely cement a top-four finish in the CCHA for Ohio State (10-7-3-3 in the league), which would like to finish there because those teams receive a first-round bye in the CCHA playoffs.
Third-place Alaska is just two points ahead of OSU but the Buckeyes have four games in hand, while the team below OSU – Nebraska-Omaha – is one back and can only earn 12 more league points because they've played two more games than OSU.
Now that the Buckeyes know the path to reach their goal, the key will be to advance on that road. Since seeing an 11-game winning streak end, Ohio State is officially just 1-2-2 in their last five games, though the Buckeyes earned the extra CCHA points after each tie by winning the shootout.
The first game of last weekend's split at Alaska was illustrative of the Buckeyes' struggles. Ohio State fell down 2-0 in the first period and put just 24 shots on net against the league's best defense.
Missing were the team's key components of playing solid, physical defense buttressed by a no-frills offense based on getting pucks deep into the zone and then winning battles along the wall to establish possession and scoring chances.
"The coaches were pretty upset," Albert said. "We watched a lot of video on that game. We basically watched the whole game without stopping. We realized how bad we actually played. I don't think we realized it when we were playing, but after the game, watching the tape, it was awful.
"We came out Saturday just thinking, ‘Let's try this. Maybe Coach was right, you know?' And obviously it worked."
Did it ever; the Buckeyes led 3-0 after five minutes and 5-0 after 11 on the way to a 6-2 win against the Nanooks.
Markell hopes that the team learned its lesson.
"How we responded on Saturday was very, very important," he said. "It comes back to them being young, and they can forget quickly. They're excited about the way they played on Saturday night and what that got them."
Notre Dame (20-4-3, 14-3-3-3) enters having lost just one of the last 22 games, that coming last Friday during a 2-1 loss at home to rising Michigan. The Fighting Irish, which lead the CCHA, are 18-1-3 over that 22-game span.
The Fighting Irish are second in the league behind Ohio State in offense and atop the conference in defense, as goaltender Jordan Pearce's 1.59 goals-against average leads the pack. In CCHA games, the team's power-play percentage of 23.5 is on top of the conference by almost four percent.
"They have good goaltending, they have great defense, they stick to their systems and they're disciplined," Markell said. "That's a pretty toxic mix in the game of hockey, and we're going to have to play the proper way in order to get anything done."