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Ohio State men’s hockey takes on Minnesota-Duluth tonight in the Frozen Four

The Buckeyes will be looking to reach their first national title game in school history

Ohio State Athletics

“A lot of people overlooked us, even though we are a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. We go up against a team like Denver, who is highly touted. But to put up five on them and only give up one, I think that’s unbelievable. It says a lot about our team. I think moving forward, teams are going to have to worry about us, not the other way around.”

-Ohio State men’s hockey forward Tanner Laczynski via Cameron Thompson, The Lantern

Ohio State will be competing in their first Frozen Four since 1998 tonight, as they’ll be taking on Minnesota-Duluth. The winner will move on to face the winner of the second semifinal later tonight between Michigan and Notre Dame.

A major reason why Ohio State has been able to advance all the way to the Frozen Four is because of the many doubters out there, who didn’t give the Buckeyes much of a chance when the brackets were announced. Ohio State has used the doubts as motivation, and are playing some of their best hockey of the season at the perfect time.

Ohio State will have a bit of revenge on their mind as well, after Minnesota-Duluth sent the Buckeyes home in last year’s NCAA Tournament, beating Ohio State 3-2 in the first round. A win over the Bulldogs tonight would give Ohio State their first appearance in the national title game in school history.

Head coach Steve Rohlik is trying to keep his team loose for tonight’s game, and telling the Buckeyes to control their emotions and play their game. Defeating Minnesota-Duluth won’t be easy though, as the Bulldogs have five underclassmen who represented the United States in the World Junior Hockey Championship. At least if there is a team with the confidence to topple such a tough foe, it is the Buckeyes.

“I played with this injury senior year of high school, my junior year of high school, and my freshman year at Ohio State. I’m kind of interested to see if there will be a change in performance now that I’m getting back to being fully healthy.”

-Ohio State cornerback Jeffrey Okudah via Bill Rabinowitz, The Columbus Dispatch

It’s scary to think that cornerback Jeffrey Okudah could even be better on the football field this year. After dealing with a shoulder injury over the past three years, in January, Okudah had surgery to repair a torn labrum. The surgery has limited the sophomore to individual drills during spring practice, but there is no question big things are on the horizon for Okudah.

New cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson hasn’t been able to work with the Buckeye yet since taking over for Kerry Coombs, but Johnson is impressed with what he has seen on tape from Okudah. Between the CB’s intelligence and physical skills, Johnson is excited to be able to get to work with Okudah once he is healthy.

While Damon Arnette and Kendall Sheffield are returning starters at cornerback for Ohio State, Okudah figures to be in the mix heading into fall camp. The Buckeyes have used a cornerback rotation over the past few years, and with talents like Okudah sitting behind the starters, there’s no reason to think the Buckeyes won’t be able to utilize the same practice that became popular under former CB coach Kerry Coombs.

“There’s no set three-rotation now. We’re not set in stone with that yet... It hasn’t been that rotation just set in stone for the spring.”

-Ohio State cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson via Patrick Murphy, Bucknuts

During Kerry Coombs’ time at Ohio State as cornerbacks coach, the Buckeyes flourished by using a rotation at the position. With the talent Ohio State has been able to amass in the defensive backfield, corners like Gareon Conley, Marshon Lattimore, and Denzel Ward have all been able to make a name for themselves in the Ohio State cornerback rotation.

While Coombs joined Mike Vrabel’s staff with the Tennessee Titans, Ohio State brought back a familiar face to fill Coombs’ place. Taver Johnson was a part of Jim Tressel’s staff from 2007-11 before making stops at three different schools over the past six seasons.

Johnson is hoping to utilize Coombs’ strategy of rotating CBs, but the practice will depend on if the players step up to earn those spots. As of now, Johnson hasn’t started using the cornerback rotation in practice, but he knows the talent is there to make it successful.

Starters Damon Arnette and Kendall Sheffield return this year, while talented corners Jeffrey Okudah, Marcus Williamson, and Shaun Wade are others who could demand more playing time with their play. Once Okudah is back on the field, Johnson’s rotation vision should start to take shape.

“Injuries are tough. It’s not only a physical battle, but I would say mostly mental. I’ve been blessed to have a lot of the guys behind me, who are some of my best friends, always pushing me through to never let me feel sorry for myself. It’s tough, but you get through it.”

-Ohio State linebacker Justin Hilliard via Tim Bielik, Northeast Ohio Media Group

So far, Justin Hilliard’s time at Ohio State has been marred by injuries. The Cincinnati native was a part of Ohio State’s 2015 recruiting class, but since then, the linebacker has suffered two torn biceps and a torn meniscus. Hilliard was able to play for the Buckeyes in 2017, but most of the action he saw was as part of the special teams unit.

This spring marks the first time during his time in Columbus that Hilliard hasn’t been recovering from an injury. The Buckeyes are going to need Hilliard to stay healthy this offseason with the loss of Tuf Borland to an Achilles injury. While Borland should be healthy for the start of the regular season, his absence has allowed for Hilliard to take first-team reps this spring.

Ohio State is going to need Hilliard at full strength this year even when Borland is back, especially with the losses of Chris Worley and Jerome Baker to the NFL. Hilliard knows he still has plenty to prove, and he is working to put himself in position to make people remember why he was the top-rated recruit in Ohio State’s 2015 recruiting class.