After their first February go-round, a thrilling encounter with No. 2 Notre Dame in front of a season-high 6,571 fans in Value City Arena, the Buckeyes are in an even more tenuous spot.
But all that stood between the Buckeyes and a huge, statement-making win over the Fighting Irish was one penalty and 1.2 seconds. Ian Boots took a spearing major with 2:11 to play with Ohio State ahead 3-2; the Buckeyes got through 2:10 of gutty, desperate penalty killing before Erik Condra scored the game-tying goal at with 1.2 seconds left.
It took just 49 seconds in overtime for Calle Ridderwall to score the game-winning, power-play goal in overtime, giving the Fighting Irish a stunning 4-3 win.
"A selfish penalty cost us the game," Ohio State head coach John Markell said.
The loss was a brutal one for an Ohio State team barely on the wrong side of the bubble for NCAA tournament play entering the series. With fourth-place in the CCHA so huge because it provides a first-round league tournament bye, the Buckeyes dropped from a tie for the spot into a fifth-place tie with Nebraska-Omaha, two points behind Michigan and Alaska.
There will be little time for pity for the Buckeyes (17-9-3, 10-8-3-3 CCHA), who will rematch with Notre Dame on Sunday at 2 p.m. in Value City Arena.
"The big thing here right now is to recapture the emotion that we had in that game," Markell said. "We're going to have to be big boys and stand up and play a better hockey game on Sunday."
A taut, defensive battle certainly turned thrilling over the final minutes for a crowd that increasingly got behind the Buckeyes as the game went on. They reached a boiling point when freshman Zac Dalpe, playing in his first game in three weeks because of a knee injury, took a behind-the-back centering pass from John Albert and scored past ND's Jordan Pearce from the right post with 2:55 to go to give the Buckeyes a 3-2 lead.
Boots' penalty, in which he speared defenseman Ian Cole, came just 44 seconds later. Suddenly, the game became an exercise in survival.
It looked like the Buckeyes would make it, though, as goaltender Dustin Carlson stopped four shots in the final minutes and eight penalty killers – first Mathieu Picard, Chris Reed, Zach Pelletier and Shane Sims and then Corey Elkins, Sergio Somma, Matt Bartkowski and Nick Biondo over the final 41.8 seconds – frantically did everything they could to deny the Fighting Irish.
But the dam finally broke, officially at 19:59. Billy Maday's shot from the left side rebounded off of Carlson's right pad and went right to Condra at the near post goal-line; his flip toward the net appeared to glance off Carlson and go into the top, far-side corner of the net.
"It bounced right to me," Condra said of his second goal of the night and seventh of the year. "I can't take too much credit when it comes right to your stick."
Overtime was academic for an Ohio State team that was gassed and still had to kill 2:49 of Boots' major. Ridderwall's one-timer, the first shot of the frame, from the right side snuck through the five-hole of a stunned Carlson at 0:49 of the extra period.
First-place Notre Dame improved to 21-4-3, 15-3-3-3 in the CCHA and 19-1-3 over its last 23 games.
"I give credit to the kids," Jackson said of the win. "To be able to score (late) obviously is huge momentum, and I thought it helped us going into overtime."
The reaction, obviously, was different on the other side of the coin.
"We're obviously disappointed," Sergio Somma said. "It's unacceptable. We had them."
"There was silence in the (dressing) room," Dalpe added. "Speechless."
Ohio State didn't trail over the final 40 minutes of regulation and in fact led for most of the time. Somma scored his ninth goal of the year 1:15 into the second period, fishing the puck out of a pile behind the net and beating Pearce far-side from a sharp angle on the right, to give OSU a 2-1 lead that stood for the rest of the period.
The Buckeyes, who were outshooting Notre Dame 14-10 after two periods, held the lead until 8:50 of the third when Condra netted a fluky power-play goal. The puck fell off of his stick near the left post but still banked off of his skate and Carlson's pads then, seemingly in slow motion, trickled just across the line despite Carlson's flailing efforts.
The teams had escaped a cautious first period tied at 1. Cole started the scoring on the first shot of the game at 4:59 with a wrister from the right point through a screen that went over Carlson's glove. Ohio State replied at 8:47 when Boots' centering pass from the right wall found Elkins at the far post for a tap-in.
Ohio State, which was without top-line defenseman Corey Toy because of a game disqualification suffered last week against Alaska that wasn't realized until the hours before faceoff, was outshot 23-20 and allowed three power-play goals on five chances. They didn't score on two man-advantage chances.
"I wouldn't say it was our best effort," Somma said, "but overall it was a pretty good game."
The Buckeyes will need another on Sunday.
"We didn't play a perfect game, but we played well enough to take the lead with a couple of minutes to go," Somma said. "That's a big positive we'll take out of it."