Even when the Ohio State men’s hockey team was struggling to post consistent results in the first four weeks of the season, head coach Mark Osiecki believed his team was playing better hockey than the results showed.
Now, the Buckeyes are proving him right.
Ohio State won its fifth game of six on Saturday night, completing a two-game sweep at Michigan State with a 3-1 win against the Spartans in Munn Ice Arena. The result vaulted the Buckeyes (7-4-3, 6-2-2-1) into first place in the CCHA, pending the result of Miami’s game at Alaska.
"It's unbelievable, especially on the road,” Osiecki said of the sweep. “That's a huge bonus. Every weekend, you have to find a way to get some points, and all of a sudden you get six on the road? Give a lot of credit to our players. I told them, hats off to them. They've applied what we have said as coaches.”
Freshman Tyler Lundey scored twice for the Buckeyes, Tanner Fritz had a goal and an assist and Ryan Dzingel pitched in two assists a night after he had the game-winning goal in a 1-0 victory.
And in a sentence that is starting to sound like a broken record, senior goaltender Brady Hjelle was fantastic. The Minnesota native started on a Saturday night for the first time this year and turned aside 22 of 23 shots while moving to 5-1-1 in conference play with a 0.59 goals-against average.
“You just prepare the same way you do for the Friday night game as you do for the Saturday,” he said. “It’s unreal to come into another team’s barn and come away with six points. Hopefully we can keep this going.”
Unlike some nights, though, Hjelle had to be fantastic at times. He was never better than he was with 11:45 to play as, with the teams skating 4-on-4, he made a point-blank stop on a breakaway by MSU forward Brent Darnell.
“This game tonight, in my opinion, it came down to 4-on-4, Hjelle makes a save, that's the turning point for me,” Osiecki said. “Our guys played with so much confidence when they see that out of him."
The Buckeyes needed Hjelle to be on his game, too, as Michigan State freshman Jake Hildebrand – who entered with a 1.72 goals-against average – was almost as good. He was only beaten as the Buckeyes put together a string of team-first goals that showed what’s working for the squad at the moment.
The first knotted the score at one goal apiece 6:50 into the second period. Sophomore Matt Johnson outworked two Spartans for the puck at the side of the cage, then fed Fritz cross-crease for a pinpoint shot over Hildebrand’s glove to make it 1-1, much to the delight of the section of around 50 OSU fans that took a bus from Columbus.
The second gave Ohio State a 2-1 lead it would not relinquish with just 1:05 to play in the middle frame. Dzingel had time and space and stopped at the blue line along the right-wing before feeding Alex Szczechura up the boards at the goal line. Szczechura skated up the goal line to draw the defense in and found Lundey at the far pipe for a stuff past the goalie.
“I like slowing the game down a little bit, so I stalled,” Dzingel said. “Luckily, two guys came to me and I threw it down to Szczechura. He made an unbelievable play down to Lundey. I was giving Lundey crap, he shaved his mustache before the game, and luckily he put one in. It was a nice play all around.”
Lundey finished things off with 20.9 seconds left, but it was the result of a nice pass by Fritz. MSU defenseman Jake Chelios coughed up the puck at the blue line, Fritz advanced it out of the zone and then fed a wide-open Lundey for the easy finish.
"I was just following our systems, trying to get to the hard areas,” said Lundey, who entered with one career goal. “My teammates set me up really well on both of my goals, and I was just trying to finish."
That the Buckeyes were able to finish off the win was a testament to the team’s resilience. Ohio State came out firing with a number of good chances early, but Hildebrand was equal to the task with a pair of excellent one-on-one saves on Lundey and Fritz.
And suddenly, Michigan State grabbed the lead not too long after. Senior assistant captain Chris Forfar somehow bounced through three Buckeyes at the blue line, got to the slot and unleashed a quick wrist shot that caught Hjelle off guard and went off his stick and through his legs at the 9:20 mark. It was Forfar’s first goal of the season.
Hjelle made a couple of good saves early in the second, though, robbing David Bondra – the son of former NHL star Peter – for a second time and turning aside Lee Reimer on a rebound to settle the Buckeyes down before the pulled away.
“There's obviously a really talented team across the way, coached unbelievably well,” Osiecki said. “Our guys had a couple of opportunities early in the game, they don't happen, they score first, now they have us on our heels, and our guys battled through it.”
The Spartans fell to 4-8-2 (3-6-1-0) on the season.
“I give Ohio State lots of credit,” head coach Tom Anastos said. “They played really well. They play they type of game they play very well.”
Ohio State returns to action Friday night in Value City Arena with a nonconference contest vs. Robert Morris, the first of a home-and-home series on the weekend.
Notes: Dzingel and Fritz remain tied for the team lead with 13 points. … Neither team had a special teams goal on the weekend. OSU’s power play was 0 for 2 on Saturday night while the Spartans went 0 for 5. … Dzingel hit the post in the third period for OSU while Michael Ferrantino did the same for the Spartans. … OSU now has 29 goals and has allowed 26 in 14 games.