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Saturday night’s home finale for Ohio State doubled as both a night to honor the team’s seven seniors and a test of their stewardship of the Buckeyes’ program.
One night after the 13th-ranked Buckeyes fell to the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble with a dispiriting home loss vs. last-place Michigan State, Ohio State needed a commanding performance from its veterans.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing, but by and large the Buckeyes got it. Seniors Nick Schilkey and Josh Healey each had three points, classmate David Gust scored, and senior Matt Tomkins made 22 saves as Ohio State earned a 5-3 victory in front of 5,537 fans in Columbus.
“Certainly last night didn’t go as planned,” Ohio State coach Steve Rohlik said. “Like I told you guys last night, it starts and ends with me and I have to take responsibility, but yet when you can turn around and challenge a group and you know you have those seven (seniors) in that room, I said, ‘You know what, you seven guys put them on our back and get them going in the right direction.’
“You know when they come through the door the next day, they’re going to be ready to go. Sometimes you have to look in the mirror, and our guys looked in the mirror and said, ‘We have to do something different.'”
Unlike Friday night when the Buckeyes fell into a 4-0 hole after one period, OSU never trailed in this one. Mason Jobst, Kevin Miller and Dakota Joshua also scored for Ohio State (18-10-6, 9-8-1-1 Big Ten), with Joshua’s power-play goal the winner 5:04 into the third when it broke a 3-3 tie.
It was the third man-advantage goal of the night for the nation’s best power play in four chances against an MSU team that entered 57th in the country of 60 teams on the penalty kill.
“We feel like when we hop over those boards, we’re going to score,” Schilkey said. “That’s all it is. The ice opens up when you’re confident, and we have players who can make plays.”
It looked like it would be a power-play battle for most of the night with the teams trading two man-up goals apiece in the first 20 minutes and change. Jobst’s laser 12:05 into the game past John Lethemon gave OSU a 1-0 lead, but the Spartans (7-22-3, 3-13-2-0) answered 36 seconds later with Sam Saliba’s deflection past Tomkins.
OSU’s Gust regained the lead for the Buckeyes with a one-timer from the left dot at 17:37 of the first, but Patrick Khodorenko snuck behind the Buckeyes’ defense and converted Mason Appleton’s feed just 52 seconds into the second to knot things 2-2.
A couple of fluky goals followed, with Miller driving the net at even strength and putting a shot on goal that popped into the air, hit Lethemon’s back, and went in at 2:03. Again though, Michigan State tied, with Saliba netting his second goal and Appleton his third assist on a transition shot that knuckled past Tomkins at 3:48.
From there, the Ohio State netminder made a number of good stops to keep it a 3-3 game late in the second, setting up the crucial third. The Buckeyes seniors said they weren’t worried going to the final frame despite what was on the line.
“We tried to keep it light,” Schilkey said. “I think we were confident because we knew we were playing a better game tonight. The first 40 was good, and going into the third I think we were confident. It’s not a bad thing to be loose, and I think we were. We knew what was on the line, and we continued to play a team game.”
Joshua’s winner was a fantastic individual play, as the sophomore grabbed the puck along the wall behind the net, spun away from a defender, stepped out to the front of the cage and slid the puck around Lethemon.
Defensively, OSU was staunch from there, giving up just four shots in the final frame, and the final 11 seconds were celebratory for the Buckeyes. Schilkey finished his home career with a bang, intercepting a pass in the neutral zone and calmly flinging a puck into the MSU net for his 26th goal of the year. After that, Rohlik put senior walk-on goalie Logan Davis into the game for an emotional send-off.
“To see Schilkey get his 26th of the year to seal it, it was big for a lot of reasons — for him but more importantly for the team,” Rohlik said. “To get a chance to get Logan Davis recognized for everything he’s done — he’s a guy that none of us talk about, but he’s as good a leader and as good a person and as good a teammate as we have in that room.”
The Buckeyes, fourth in the Big Ten, will complete the regular season next weekend with two games at Wisconsin, while the Spartans will travel to take on Minnesota.
Big Ten roundup
No. 11 Penn State 6, No. 16 Wisconsin 0
A night after giving up seven goals, Penn State turned up the heat defensively in its 6-0 win against the Badgers in Hockey Valley. Peyton Jones made 36 saves in the victory on the Nittany Lions’ senior night, while David Goodwin had two goals and an assist. David Thompson, Kris Myllari, Zach Saar, and Alec Marsh added goals and Denis Smirnov had three assists for the Nittany Lions, who stayed in third place in the league, two points ahead of OSU.
No. 5 Minnesota 4, Michigan 1
The Golden Gophers made it three splits in as many series in the Big Ten over the weekend and also moved into the conference lead with a 4-1 win at Michigan. Minnesota jumped on Michigan in the first with a 15-4 shot advantage and had the period’s lone goal off the stick of Rem Pitlick. Tyler Sheehy and Leon Bristedt gave the Gophers a 3-0 lead in the second. Tony Calderone drew one back for Michigan, but Sheehy’s empty-net goal sealed it and completed a three-point night. Eric Schierhorn had 27 saves for Minnesota.