Another piece of the Buckeyes wants to use the second half of its season as momentum going into this weekend's best-of-three first-round series at the OSU Ice Rink against Notre Dame. Ohio State posted two wins against ranked foes in the second half and added a shootout triumph Saturday to end the regular season against second-ranked Miami (Ohio).
As it turns out, the latter approach won that battle of wills.
"Coming off the Saturday win against Miami, I thought that was one of the best defensive games we've played all year and something that we're going to need to take into the playoffs," defenseman Matt Bartkowski said going into the series against the ninth-seeded Fighting Irish. "The second half of the season we've had momentum, so we are going to take that into the playoffs and we're going to step it up a notch."
The Buckeyes did step up their play during the season's second half, so there's one reason to look back. Ohio State's record was 5-4-5-3 despite six games against ranked foes, and the Buckeyes moved up from 10th place to eighth and the final home-ice spot with nine points in the last five games of the year.
"We're looking for a tremendous effort, an inspired effort," head coach John Markell added. "We've worked long and hard to get home ice and now we've got it. It's what we do with it from here. We've been on a hard stretch here this second half and we knew we had to do good things and we did."
Throughout that 14-game stretch, the Buckeyes learned the hard way the way to play at this point in the season. When the team played with an understanding of its roles, such as on Saturday against Miami, the hockey was at a high level. In blowout losses to Miami the night before and to Alaska, Ohio State seemed aloof and off its game.
"It's not about Xs and Os right now, it's about effort," Markell said. "They know where to be. It's all about that effort and going the extra mile for your teammate this time of year. It was about team on Saturday."
The only problem is that there have been times when the wrong Buckeye squad has shown up, but team members don't expect that to be a problem now that the playoffs have arrived.
In addition, it shouldn't be hard to get the juices flowing this weekend when the team suits up in its temporary home of the Ice Rink. The building – which holds around 1,000 fans – is the Buckeyes' practice rink and the home of the OSU women's team, but it's the team's new home for the weekend with Value City Arena booked for the state high school wrestling tournament.
Ohio State has played its last two playoff series in its former home, losing 2-1 to Northern Michigan in 2007 before sweeping Bowling Green a season ago. Even though the 8,906 who packed VCA last weekend for the Miami games won't fit, a raucous atmosphere can still be counted on in the tiny building with the low ceiling.
"You kind of have to take it for what it is – you're getting kicked out of this rink so you don't really have a choice – but it's not bad," said team leading scorer Zac Dalpe. "It's going to be loud in there. It's packed and we've practiced in there every day, so we're used to the ice. Hopefully we can get some inside bumps and angles off the boards."
There's little denying the game is a little different in the old rink as well, starting with livelier boards than Value City Arena. Known as being 15 feet shorter than regulation size when it housed the Buckeyes in the pre-VCA days, the OSU Ice Rink was expanded when Ohio State moved across the river but many swear it is still short of the correct size, especially in the neutral zone.
Add in the intensity and higher speed of playoff hockey and things tend to get physical at the old rink. Last year's playoff series with BG was marked by a bench-clearing brawl that resulted in five ejections in the second game.
But when looking back, the Buckeyes might do better to draw upon their experiences in the 2007 with Northern Michigan. Ohio State won the first game but NMU's relentless forecheck and grinding abilities in the corners wore the Buckeyes down as the Wildcats captured the final two games to move on and end OSU's season. At its best, Notre Dame will try to operate the same type of game.
"We've been practicing against their forecheck all week and it's pretty unique, an aggressive forecheck," Bartkowski said. "We have to focus on moving the puck quick and making the right, simple play all the time and not turning over pucks. They have a lot of skilled forwards and they're a little bigger up front. We have to be patient and once we get our opportunities to capitalize on them."
Notre Dame enters having beaten Michigan to end its regular season and snap a five-game losing streak, four games of which came against CCHA bottom-feeders BG and Western Michigan. Injuries have taken the steam out of Jeff Jackson's team this season as forwards Billy Maday, Ben Ryan and Christiaan Minella as well as defensemen Ian Cole and Teddy Ruth all missed time.
Overall, Notre Dame – which took four of six points earlier this year vs. Ohio State in October – is 10th in the CCHA in scoring with 2.42 goals per game, and only junior Calle Ridderwall with 18 goals has reached double digits in tallies. Keeping the Irish from finding their scoring groove will be the key, Markell said.
"That's the way we have to approach the game – defend first and then take care of your opportunities by frustrating the other team," Markell said. "That's the way you have to play the game in the playoffs."
Ohio State says Notre Dame returned some of its ticket allotment, which is now on sale for the games.