ST. PAUL, Minn. — It was the worst possible start for Ohio State and the unlikeliest.
The nation’s third-best defense experienced a complete and total breakdown within the first 3:04 of the Frozen Four semifinal against Minnesota Duluth on Thursday, surrendering two goals and nearly a third and the Buckeyes — a defense-first team — were unable to recover.
Coach Steve Rohlik said that the Buckeyes “felt we were on our heels right away” but couldn’t speculate as to why.
“We probably had the best last 10 days of practice that we’ve had on and off and really felt like we were focused and ready to go, but you get smacked in the face like that early,” he said. “It wakes you up.”
After giving up those two goals, though, Sean Romeo and the Buckeyes shut down the Bulldogs, stopping Minnesota Duluth’s 26 subsequent shots and believing they could overcome that early defensive lapse.
“I knew these guys would battle back,” said Romeo. “We saw it in Notre Dame a few weeks ago. I never had doubt with those guys. I knew that if I just did my job and not let in two goals every three minutes, we’d have a chance. They battled to the end and did a great job.”
The Buckeyes have bought into a defense-first mentality this year, helping them climb from the 30th-best defense in the nation in 2016-17 to this year’s top-five blue line.
“That’s what we tried to focus on and I think we kind of got away from that right out of the gate,” said forward Mason Jobst. “We just for whatever reason got away from our five-man defense in the zone and they ended up getting a quick one and we kind of ran into panic mode.
“But once we took a deep breath and stuck to our roots — starting structured in the D zone and playing detailed — that led to our offense and we were able to create some chances off of it. We just couldn’t find a way to put it in.”
“We have a tendency of going down early in these big games and then we’ve got climb our way back,” said forward Freddy Gerard, “but we always find a way to pull ourselves together.”
All of the Buckeyes said that their faith in Romeo never wavered, even after the rocky start to the game.
“That can’t be easy, letting up two like that, but then he stood on his head again like he has all year,” said Gerard. “It says a lot about his character and who he is. He’s able to block out the distractions and just play his game. He did. He kept us in it. The defense as a whole, also. They have short memories and they played really well there toward the end.”
“He’s been incredible all year,” said Rohlik. “Obviously a tough start and most guys might fold their tent, but not Romes. He stood in there tall for us. At the end of the day, we’ve got to score more than one to win.”
No one faulted Romeo for the loss. It was what came after those first three minutes and four seconds of the game that counted, said the Buckeyes.
“We’ve got so much confidence in him,” said Jobst. “I know he’s got confidence in himself. There was no doubt. He was going to lock it down and there was going to be two [Duluth] goals and we were just going to have to score three to win the game. We didn’t take care of business.”
“As a team,” said Gerard, “we just ran out of time.”