No. 3 seed Ohio State ends a four-year NCAA Tournament drought Friday afternoon when it begins the quest for the program’s first national championship against No. 2 seed Harvard.
The Buckeyes (20-15-3) will travel to Total Mortgage Arena to play in the Bridgeport Regional in Connecticut. It’s the Buckeyes’ first appearance in the big dance since 2019 after a would-be qualification in 2020 was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
[Our] guys were really hungry to get [to the NCAA tournament],” head coach Steve Rohlik said. “You never take things for granted, and we certainly don’t. This group has worked awfully hard to get back here.”
The Crimson (24-7-2) enter the tournament off a 3-2 loss to Colgate in the Eastern College Athletic Conference championship game Saturday. The Buckeyes return from a more extended layoff, having last played on March 11 in a 7-3 loss to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals.
Rohlik is tasked with navigating an inexperienced squad, with forwards senior Kamil Sadlocha and graduate Gustaf Westlund as the only returners from the Buckeyes’ last tournament appearance. He believes sticking to the routine and mindset used all year will help temper nerves.
“The NCAA Tournament is a whole new level,” Rohlik said. “But you’ve got to embrace it. It’s about our preparation, and if we do the things we need to do throughout the week, I think guys should feel comfortable about stepping on the ice.”
It’ll be a battle of top special teams units in Bridgeport. Ohio State remains No. 1 in the country in defending the power play, killing 89.5 percent of opposing opportunities. Harvard ranks No. 9 in power-play percentage, converting with the man advantage at a 24.1 clip.
The Buckeyes are No. 17 in the country in power-play conversion rate at 22.4 percent but have fifth-year forward and second-team All-Big Ten honoree Jake Wise to lead the squad. Wise is tied for sixth nationally with nine power-play goals in the campaign.
“Special teams are huge; there’s no question about it,” Rohlik said. “[When] a team has a hot goaltender, and they’ve got good special teams, you’re probably going to have a pretty good chance to win.”
Harvard is ranked No. 7 in the country in scoring offense averaging 3.76 goals per game. They’re led by the forward trio of juniors Sean Farrell, Alex Laferriere and sophomore Matthew Coronato who have all scored 20-plus goals on the season.
Ohio State doesn’t have a 20-goal scorer, instead relying on multiple contributors with five skaters tallying double digits. Freshman forward and All-Big Ten honorable mention selection Stephen Halliday leads the team in points with 40.
Both teams relied on above-average goaltending throughout the season. Crimson senior Mitchell Gibson holds a goals-against average of 2.05, good for sixth in the country, while counterpart sophomore Jakub Dobeš surrenders 2.33 per contest, ranking No. 23 for the Buckeyes.
“I feel like we have a moment to just show everyone what we are all about,” Dobeš said. “I feel like a lot of guys in the locker room were waiting for this moment, and hopefully, it will happen.”
Senior forward Tate Singleton believes the rigor of the Big Ten prepared Ohio State for the big stage, and the Buckeyes have the talent to match Harvard despite what critics may say.
“They have some really elite players, and I think we do too,” Singleton said. “I think a couple of people have passed on us and maybe say we don’t have the elite talent that they do. But you know what I say? I say we do, and I think it’s going to be a really good game.”
Puck drop is scheduled for 2 p.m. Friday with ESPNU televising. The winner will face the winner of No. 1 seed Quinnipiac and No. 4 seed Merrimack Sunday with a trip to the Frozen Four on the line.
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