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Men’s Hockey: Buckeyes excited to have fans back at Schottenstein Center for home opener against Connecticut

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Ohio State then-sophomore forward Mark Cheremeta (17) and then-junior forward Gustaf Westlund (29) move the puck towards the goal during the Ohio State-Wisconsin game Dec. 3, 2020. Ohio State won the game 4-2. Credit: Mackenzie Shanklin | Photo Editor

This weekend, for the first time in 19 months, the Ohio State men’s hockey team will play a meaningful game in front of a home crowd.

Ohio State (1-1-0) will host the Connecticut Huskies (2-1-0) for a two-game series that serves as the Buckeyes’ regular-season home opener. The Huskies come to Columbus fresh off a series split with then-ranked No. 10 Boston University.

Head coach Steve Rohlik, now in his ninth year with the Buckeyes, knows Connecticut poses a tough test for his team.

“They got a really good hockey team. They’ve already proven that,” Rohlik said. “We know we got to play with our structure to have a chance.”

The Buckeyes come into the series following a 7-1 demolition of Bentley last Saturday, their first and only win so far this season.

Rohlik noted a number of distinctions between the Buckeyes’ 2-1 loss to Bentley in game one and their victory in game two.

“I think we were heavier on the net. We had a guy on top of the goaltender and we didn’t make it easy on him,” Rohlik said. “I don’t think we had as many defensive lapses or breakdowns, we were playing well defensively and we were transitioning. I think that was the biggest difference.”

Junior forward Jaedon Leslie, who was named an alternate captain last week, is confident he and his teammates can continue to ride the momentum gained in the series finale.

“We got a good team coming in here with UConn,” Leslie said. “I believe that if we’re doing the right things, getting pucks to the net, making sure that we’re reloading the puck and getting a guy in front of the goalie, that we can continue that success.”

Connecticut has steadily risen in the college hockey ranks since hiring Mike Cavanaugh to be its head coach. Cavanaugh, now in his ninth year, led the Huskies to the program’s first-ever ranking in the national polls last season.

Additionally, the Huskies finished in fourth place in the Hockey East last season — the program’s highest finish since joining the conference.

On the ice, senior forward Jonny Evans is the star of the show for Connecticut. Last season, Evans totaled 29 points in 23 games, good enough to be named Hockey East Scoring Champion and a Second-Team AHCA/CCM All-American.

So far this season, Evans has found the back of the net once and added three assists. His four points put him in a tie for second among Huskies skaters.

Ohio State averaged 38 shots on goal in its two contests against Bentley, a sizable increase from the 27.6 it averaged last season.

Despite the improvement, Rohlik feels his team needs further growth when it comes to getting pucks on net, highlighting the Buckeyes’ struggles in that area during the season opener Friday.

“You got to give Bentley credit; they got the job done. Their goalie did a tremendous job, they blocked 21 shots and we missed the net 20 times,” Rohlik said. “We had those 41 shots that didn’t get to the net. You got to figure out a way to [get pucks on goal].”

The Buckeyes will need to continue to fire plenty of pucks at the net if they want to beat Connecticut’s graduate goaltender Darion Hanson. Hanson was recently named Hockey East Goaltender of the Week for his performances against Boston last weekend.

Across the two matchups with the Terriers, Hanson stopped 72-of-75 shots faced. In Friday’s loss, the graduate student stopped a season-high 43-of-45 shots.

It cannot be understated how much Ohio State is looking forward to getting back in front of its home fans this weekend. Junior defenseman Dominc Vidoli said he’s excited to put last year’s strange season in the rearview mirror and play in front of supporters once again.

“It’s going to be great. Obviously, last year was tough not having people around,” Vidoli said. “We got a taste of it with the exhibition against Western Michigan. It’ll be awesome to have fans for the regular-season home opener this weekend.”

The Schottenstein Center is set to host both contests, with puck drop scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday. Both games can be streamed on BTN+ and heard on Ohio State Radio.

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