In the opening round of last year’s NCAA tournament, Minnesota-Duluth dispatched Ohio State in overtime en route to a trip to the national title game. Now this year, the Bulldogs are one win away from playing for a national title yet again, and it’s Ohio State that stands in the way.
But the Buckeyes aren’t just coming to St. Paul just to send the home-state team packing. Steve Rohlik’s team comes into this semifinal with more confidence. The butterflies that might have been there last year for Ohio State, when it was making its first trip to the NCAA tournament in eight years, are now gone.
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“Last year, we were on the edge, we needed to be the last team in and we hadn’t been (to the tournament) in a while as a program, Rohlik said. “Certainly, we knew we were going against one of the best teams in the country at the time. They were definitely the better team, and we were kind of on our heels a little bit and fell behind, but I think as the game went on a second or third period, I thought we played pretty well.
“For our guys, it was a good learning experience, it was great to be part of it. The way we’ve prepared this year, we wanted to make sure that we had another chance.”
Truth be told, Ohio State was the better team for the second and third periods. After UMD jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period, Ohio State outscored UMD 2-0 over the final two periods, outshooting the Buckeyes 33-26.
“I think last year even when we played them in Fargo, I thought they were the better team over the last 40 minutes,” Sandelin said. “We had a good start but they had a real strong group of forwards, they really pushed the pace of the game.”
There’s a contrast in the special teams between Michigan and Notre Dame. In this game between UMD and Ohio State, it’s a story of two strong special-team programs matching up against one another.
Ohio State has, perhaps, the best combined special teams in the country, boasting the seventh-best power play and the best penalty kill in the nation.
UMD’s power play is ranked No. 6, just one spot ahead of Ohio State’s.
“Maybe sometimes, you don’t work at it as much as you should,” Rohlik said. “But really, at the end of the day, after every game, look at a box score and see the special teams, and it probably gives you a pretty good description of what happened. We know how important it is, so we’ve worked extremely hard from the start of the year on both ends. And it all started with the PK. Steve Miller came in (as assistant coach), we tweaked a lot of things on the penalty kill, and just turned it over to him.
“When you have a little bit of success early, your team buys in, and they did that right from the start. When you get solid goaltending, that makes this, and he is your best penalty killer. Then, with Steve really taking charge, and our guys are just buying in right from the start, it was huge.
“On the power play, we kind of started the opposite. We didn’t start out very well in the power play. At the end of the day, we don’t look pretty at times, but somehow we find a way to score big power play goals. When you’re good on special teams, it’s going to give you a chance in the game.”
En route to the Frozen Four, Ohio State had to beat a team that has been a thorn in the side of UMD … Denver.
The Pioneers, of course, beat UMD in the national title game one year ago, and in the regular season, Minnesota-Duluth went 0-5 against the Pios.
Ohio State, on the other hand, beat Denver 5-1 in the Midwest Regional Final.
“I was very impressed with their demeanor, their poise. I thought they really played a really patient, intelligent game against Denver,” Sandelin said. “I think saw the Michigan game, I think it was on a Sunday, when we weren’t playing or a weekend we weren’t playing. I think they won 5-1, so I knew offensively, that they have those weapons. We saw that last year. Maybe they’re on a mission this year.”
If the game isn’t decided on special teams, it could be decided on how well UMD is able to neutralize a talented Ohio State forward group.
“They’ve got some big bodies that can control the wall, they really get to the net well, they’re involved in their offense,” Sandelin said. “So, again, they can play a fast game, they can score goals, they can defend well, which they did against Denver. It’ll be a real good match up for us.”