The Buckeyes' last trip to the nation's 49th state coincided with the worst blizzard of the year in Columbus; what was supposed to be a daylong trip stretched over two days as the team couldn't get off the Port Columbus runway for hours on end.
This time, travel was mostly smooth except for one detail: starting goaltender and possible team MVP Dustin Carlson nearly missed his connecting flight in Atlanta.
How could that happen for a player traveling with coaches and teammates? Details are sketchy, save for the fact that Carlson was asleep come boarding time, a likely remnant of the team's 3 a.m. meeting time for the Wednesday trip.
With everyone among the two team traveling parties present and accounted for in Fairbanks, the hard part really begins. Ohio State must get its bodies ready and both mentally and physically prepare for a best-of-three series against the Nanooks in the quarterfinals of the CCHA playoffs. Two wins are necessary for the Buckeyes, who enter on the NCAA tournament bubble, to continue their season.
By winning two games, the No. 14 Buckeyes (22-12-4) would make it to Joe Louis Arena for the first time 2005, back when six teams qualified for the championship held at the home of the Detroit Red Wings. Ohio State's 2-0 series win against last-place Bowling Green last weekend was its first playoff series win in the intervening four years.
"It would be tremendous if we could get through this step," head coach John Markell said, "if we can get these kids to Joe Louis as young as they are in their careers so they can get a taste of what it's like to get there and how special of a deal it is to get there and how tough it is to get there. One of the prerequisites of getting there is beating some good hockey teams and this is part of that."
The fact that the road to the Joe travels through Fairbanks is both a blessing and a curse. The Nanooks finished just 15-13-6 overall and 13-10-5-3 in the CCHA and are not a top-10 team in the nation like the other three teams in the league that earned first-round byes.
Of course, the other side of the coin is that the trip to Fairbanks is not easy even at full strength. The Buckeyes skipped practice Tuesday in order to be rested for the trip and spent the early part of the week hydrating for the trip. Full strength is fleeting for OSU, which will be without captain Zach Pelletier for the opening game and forward Ian Boots for the first two games because of suspensions from a fight Saturday night against BG.
Sophomore captain Peter Boyd, who suffered a concussion on a hit that led to the fracas, made the trip to Alaska but will have to pass a concussion test while there to play.
Ohio State split the two-game series with the Nanooks in Fairbanks during the waning days of January. Fresh off of the initial travel disaster, the Buckeyes lost 4-1 in the first game before taking a 5-0 lead in the first period of the second game on the way to a 6-2 win. The six goals were the most given up all year by the league's best defensive team.
The Buckeyes attributed simple, physical play for the blowout win.
"Friday night, I don't think we had more than 40-some hits," said defenseman Matt Bartkowski, a CCHA All-Rookie team honoree along with forward Zac Dalpe. "Saturday night I think we had 38 in the first period and that's a reflection of how the game went. The physical aspect is a major part."
"We played good defense first to gain possession of the puck and then we transitioned to offense really well," added sophomore assistant captain Sergio Somma, who had two goals including the first. "We moved our feet and chipped pucks around the D."
Markell said that the Buckeyes defended hard in that second game, a trait that should make the team successful against the Nanooks if it can do it again. Alaska had just the 11th-best offense among the league's 12 teams and was shut out 10 times, including in its last two games of the year against rival Alaska-Anchorage.
Getting the OSU offense in gear will be the hard part, considering the Nanooks allowed fewer than two goals per game on average and had the best goalie in the league, statistically, in Chad Johnson.
"I think they defend so well, you have to be prepared for that," Markell said. "They layer themselves which means they block a lot of shots. They have a good goaltender. He doesn't see many shots, and you have to stay patient with your opportunities and not get frustrated by that and continue creating those opportunities."
The on-ice plan seems fairly simple – in this case, there is no Mystery in Alaska. Sticking to it with playoff pressure, a road crowd, hostile terrain, suspensions and 4,000 miles of travel all going against the Buckeyes will be the hardest part of the trip.
But a team that has pointed to its close nature as the reason for its turnaround from an 11th-place finish last season hopes that those bonds can pull them through for one more weekend.
"You go back to your roots when you're a kid," Somma said of the trip. "It can be a lot of fun. We do have a lot closer team and a real tight team. With the tough travel and tough things, you're together and you just grow closer. It definitely helps on the ice."