When you compare the experiences of the Ohio State and Michigan hockey teams at the NCAA Frozen Four Tournament, it takes some thought to decide which was more gut-wrenching.
Against Minnesota Duluth in Thursday’s semifinal at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., the Buckeyes stumbled out of the gate, surrendering two goals before the game was three minutes and five seconds old. Imagine the football Buckeyes falling behind 14-0 in the same time frame in a College Football Playoff.
Optimism evaporates with any dreadful start, which leaves fans praying with an uneasy feeling over the next two hours about whether a comeback in a game of such magnitude can be generated.
Hours later, Michigan was crushed when Notre Dame scored the game-winning goal with 5 seconds remaining in regulation.
Which hurts more?
Ohio State eventually played better and inspired hope — those two quick goals (Louie Roehl burying the puck into a wide-open net, Jared Thomas beating Buckeyes goalie Sean Romeo on a breakaway) were the only ones the Buckeyes surrendered despite being overwhelmingly outplayed in the opening period.
The Bulldogs outshot the Buckeyes 17-4 and from the 11th row near the Ohio State bench the domination felt much worse.
But it wasn’t over as the Buckeyes slowly climbed back into contention. In the third period, Tanner Laczysnki scored a power-play goal, reducing the deficit to 2-1. Suddenly, it was the Bulldogs who were scrambling to hang on.
But they did. Minnesota Duluth goaltender Hunter Shepard stopped the remaining Buckeyes’ shots, making 19 saves in all and the Bulldogs advanced to tonight’s NCAA Championship Game.
According to the Associated Press, Buckeyes coach Steve Rohlik said. “We dug ourselves a hole, but I couldn’t be more proud of my group. They didn’t quit and like they have all year, played right to the end.”
Minnesota Duluth’s opponent is the Big Ten champion. (In the hockey universe, Notre Dame is not independent.)
Adding insult to injury to Michigan fans was how they watched their team blow a 2-0 lead in the second period, then rally to tie the game 3-3 on Michael Pastujov’s goal late in the third period.
Overtime appeared to be a certainty until former Youngstown Phantom Cam Morrison, the USHL’s Rookie of the Year two seasons ago, broke loose down the left wing then passed the puck to Jake Evans in the slot. Evans sent the pass past Wolverines goaltender Hayden Lavigne for the game-winner.
“Cam just did a really good job of putting it out there for me,” Evans said.
Which is worse — watching your team trying to dig out of a huge ditch early but coming up short or seeing you team give up the winning goal so late that there is no chance for a comeback?
Morrison wasn’t the only former Phantom represented. His teammate, freshman Pierce Crawford, was not in the Fighting Irish lineup. Crawford was a late season acquisition to the Phantoms last year.
Romeo and four other Buckeyes also played junior hockey in Youngstown: defensemen Matt Miller (East Palestine) and Tommy Parran, and forwards Luke Stork (alternate captain) and Austin Pooley.
Over the years, Phantoms coaches Anthony Noreen (now with the Tri-City Stars) and Brad Patterson have talked about how their role is to prepare their players not only for what happens on the ice but also how to handle adversity off it.
They could not have been prouder of Romeo. As the Bulldogs celebrated, Romeo joined his teammates alongside the Ohio State bench then was the first Buckeye to skate to the blueline to begin the handshake line. It could not have been easy.
Despite the outcome, the Frozen Four had enjoyable moments. During the game, Romeo, a redshirt junior and accounting major, was saluted for having the highest grade-point average (3.78) of any of the Frozen Four players.
Pooley was one of the Buckeyes shown reading Dad Jokes. Example:
Q. How does a penguin build a house?
A. Igloos it together. (Maybe be you have to be a dad to think it’s funny.)
What was unusual was how outnumbered Buckeyes fans were. There were no “O-H I-O” chants and the OSU band was definitely smaller than the other three.
Many of the fans wearing scarlet and gray did not stick around to watch Michigan-Notre Dame, missing out on seeing their archrival crushed.
The Buckeyes were making only their first Frozen Four appearance since 1998. Assuming that Romeo and most of the defensemen return, another strong season is not out of the question
Tom Williams is a sportswriter at The Vindicator. Write him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter, @Williams_Vindy.