The two best defensive teams in the Big Ten are set to face off in South Bend, Indiana, this weekend.
Ohio State’s men’s hockey team (8-4-0, 4-2-0 Big Ten) will hit the road for the first time in three weeks this weekend. No. 8 Notre Dame (10-3-0, 4-2-0 Big Ten), winner of six straight contests, welcomes the Buckeyes for a two-game conference showdown.
Notre Dame hasn’t taken the ice since Nov. 20 but should be playing with plenty of confidence following a two-game sweep of No. 3 Michigan. Ohio State head coach Steve Rohlik spoke highly of the Fighting Irish during the week.
“They don’t really have many weaknesses,” Rohlik said. “They’re good at every level. They’re as good a hockey team as there is in college hockey right now.”
The Buckeyes dropped three of four contests against Notre Dame last season, getting outscored 19-5 in the process.
Senior forward Quinn Preston — who scored two goals, including the game-winner in the Buckeyes’ lone victory over the Fighting Irish last season — said he knows he and his teammates have to avoid mistakes if they want the series to be a success.
“They play very defensive and systematically,” Preston said. “We’ve just got to play a pretty sound game both nights, I think, to really have a good chance against them.”
Notre Dame goes as its defense goes. The Fighting Irish boast the conference’s best scoring defense, as well as the nation’s best penalty kill percentage.
Matthew Galajda, a graduate transfer from Cornell, has been a huge part of their defensive success. The former Big Red goaltender is 7-1 and owns the fourth-best save percentage in the country at .943.
Offensively, junior forward Max Ellis has carried much of the load for Notre Dame through 13 games. Ellis is the team leader in goals, assists and points. His 10 goals are currently second-most in the Big Ten.
Unlike its upcoming opponent, Ohio State has gotten things done by committee this season. Thirteen Buckeyes have recorded at least two goals this year, while nobody has more than four.
Rohlik said his team’s balance will take them where they want to go this season.
“You always need your best players to be your players, but not always are they going to score goals,” Rohlik said. “I think we’re going to win because of our depth and because we’re getting contributions from everybody. I just think that’s the way we’re built.”
Two freshmen top the charts in points for Ohio State — forward Georgii Merkulov and defenseman Mason Lohrei. The two rookies are tied for the team lead with 10 points in their debut campaigns.
Merkulov starred for the Buckeyes in their series with Mercyhurst last weekend, recording a goal and an assist in both Friday’s 5-4 loss and Saturday’s 3-2 win. As a result, the Russian was named the Big Ten’s Third Star Wednesday.
One area where Rohlik’s team has really struggled this season is on the power play. Entering this weekend, Ohio State has found the back of the net just five times with an extra man, the fewest of any school in the league.
Preston, who typically features on the Buckeyes’ power play, said he believes the team needs to give the opposing goaltender more to do when playing 5-on-4.
“I think a big thing is just getting pucks to the net. We kind of tend to be a little too pretty sometimes,” Preston said. “I think if we get shots to the net and get second opportunities, there will be a little scrambling and that’ll give us a better chance to score on the power play.”
Despite the No. 8 next to Notre Dame’s name and its six consecutive victories, Lohrei is approaching this weekend’s series the same way he would if the Buckeyes were playing the Big Ten’s cellar.
“It’s the Big Ten,” Lohrei said. “You’ve got to bring it every single weekend, no matter who you’re playing.”
Friday’s puck drop is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. and will be televised by NBCSN. The series finale is slated to begin at 6 p.m. and can be streamed through NBCSports.com.