With drop in goals allowed, Ohio State’s faith in defensive philosophy is rewarded

Coach Steve Rohlik says Ohio State has tried to be more responsible defensively: “We’re trying to be a 200-foot team” (photo: Melissa Wade).

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Three of the four teams in this year’s Frozen Four exemplify the old adage that defense wins games. Ohio State, Minnesota Duluth and Notre Dame have three of the best blue lines in the country, but for the Buckeyes, this is a new development and one that happened by design.

“The coaches did a great job of implanting that in our system right away,” said junior forward Freddy Gerard, who has 12 goals in 39 games this season and plays on the Buckeyes’ top line with sophomore Tanner Laczynski and junior Mason Jobst.

“I guess in the past we kind of had been a team that would say, ‘Hey, let’s go out and score six goals,’ and that would work. But we knew that if we wanted to be a team that makes it far and gets to where we are now, we needed to focus defensively and start there first. If we’re playing good defense, that’ll lead to good offense.”

Ohio State has the third-best defense in the nation, allowing 2.08 goals per game on average — a significant improvement over last year’s 30th-best blue line that allowed close to three goals per game.

The difference isn’t about an effective Ohio State offense. In fact, with the 10th-best offense nationally, the Buckeyes are scoring 3.25 goals per game, a drop from the 3.92 they averaged last season.

With their defense-first philosophy, though, they are playing smarter, more confident hockey.

“I think we’ve been consistent,” said coach Steve Rohlik. “Our numbers are there. We’ve improved a ton defensively, no question. We haven’t dropped off much offensively if you really look at the numbers.

“We know that we’re trying to be a 200-foot team. We’re trying to be responsible, but at the end of the day we feel that if we need to score goals, we’ll score goals. I don’t think we’re as loose as we’ve been in the past.”

The Buckeyes have six players on their roster who’ve reached the 10-goal mark this season, led by Jobst and his career-high 21 goals. Jobst, the team’s captain, has been on that top line with Laczynski and Gerard since the Big Ten tournament, just after another scoring leader, Matthew Weis, broke his collarbone in practice the week before the conference championship game.

Jobst has 12 points in his last eight games, with five goals and three assists in postseason play.

“We’ve made a couple of changes this year compared to the past,” said Jobst. “We’re used to scoring five or six goals a night, last year it kind of seemed like, but you can’t do it every night. So we’ve changed to a five-man system on defense. We all really believe in that, and that it will lead to offense.”

Nowhere was that more evident than in Ohio State’s 5-1 Midwest Regional final win March 25 over defending national champion Denver. After holding Denver scoreless through the first two periods and with a 2-0 lead at the start of the third, the Buckeyes scored three third-period goals to Denver’s one, in spite of the Pioneers outshooting the Buckeyes 16-7 in the final stanza.

“Our best period is our third period,” said Laczynski, “and I think that just goes to show the wearing down and the wear-and-tear on teams that we play, and then we give our offense an opportunity.”

The Buckeyes are outscoring opponents 60-30 in third periods this season and have scored the largest percentage of their goals (46.1 percent) in third periods — a statistic that appears to have rewarded the Ohio State offense for having a little faith in a defensive philosophy.

“As forwards, we don’t want to play defense,” said Laczynski, “but we just bought into it and that’s really helped us as a whole from the offensive side of things in general — moving the pucks up and reloading, getting above pucks, backchecking and beating teams and wearing them down.”