ST. PAUL- Throughout the 2014 Big Ten Hockey tournament at Xcel Energy Center, one constant has been defense. Three games featuring several high-flying offenses have ended in 2-1 scores. Tonight Ohio State changed that...with an empty net last minute goal by Anthony Greco on top of Ryan Dzingel's (Ottawa Senators) game-winner 9:08 into the third period to defeat top-ranked Minnesota 3-1.
"Obviously, first congratulate Ohio State. Their best player (Ryan Dzingel) made the play in the third period to score the game-winning goal," Gophers head coach Don Lucia said Friday night. "Disappointing from our standpoint. Obviously something we talked about was playing on Saturday night to play for a championship. We're not going to win very often scoring one goal.
"That's the part that's most disappointing to me is we had some opportunities. We get a couple pipes, but they didn't go in tonight."
With the win - its second ever against Minnesota - the Buckeyes now play Wisconsin tomorrow (Saturday March 22) for the inaugural Big Ten conference championship. The Badgers defeated Penn State 2-1 earlier.
Both teams traded tap-in power play goals in the first two periods. Ohio State (18-13-5) freshman Nick Schilkey redirected a Tanner Fritz pass 15:20 into the game. The Buckeyes nearly made it 2-0, however, Max McCormick beat Minnesota (25-6-6) goaltender Adam Wilcox (Tampa Bay Lightning) right after the green light came on to end the first.
"They definitely outplayed us in the first period," junior co-captain Kyle Rau (Florida Panthers) said. "I don't think we got lucky being down by one. Yeah, I feel like we escaped because they had an extra second on the clock at 2-0."
Rau tied things up 4:47 into the second period when he tapped home a Taylor Camamrata pass on the backdoor for his 12th goal of the season. It gave the Gophers life during a stretch where special teams play made it hard to get an even-strength advantage and woke up an announced crowd of 9,753.
It just wasn't enough, though. Despite coming close with Sam Warning hitting the crossbar and an apparent Seth Ambroz goal waved off, the Buckeyes were the team that pulled through. Christian Frey made 30 saves Friday.
"We bent, but we didn't break," said Ohio State head coach Steve Rohlik. "We got to expect to win. That's what we told our team. You got to expect to win every game no matter who you play. We just beat the best team in the country tonight. It's a good feeling, but we're not done yet."
Dzingel, Ohio State's goal leade with 21r, was the catalyst. Constantly battling against Wilcox, who made 22 saves, this season, Dzingel kept finding himself on the other side of success. This time was different. Taking a pass from Tyler Lundey and waving off his teammates, he shot the puck through traffic.
For once against Wilcox, that put the junior ahead.
"Obviously he was a great goalie. It was a garbage goal," Dzingel said. "That's how playoff hockey is. Threw it into the net. Usually the first one doesn't go in on him, but that one went in."
The Buckeyes got that, playing a playoff-like game. Now the fourth-seeded Big Ten team is only one win away from going to the NCAA Tournament with an automatic berth.
"We're taking it day by day and trying to get better," said OSU forward Tanner Fritz, who has 3 points (1G-2A) in 2 games. "Tomorrow's just another day for that. It's do or die for us, so we have to take that tomorrow."
Still, another constant looms over Minnesota. New conference or not, the Gophers have now lost the last 4 conference games at the Xcel dating back to 2008. Three times Lucia's club has been the top seed and fell Friday night. While this game didn't have the same stakes that it did for the Buckeyes (the Gophers will play at Xcel Energy Center next weekend against the Atlantic Hockey champion), Minnesota still has to quickly turn things around. There are no more rehearsals, there are no more second chances for a season with championship aspirations. Players need to step up and others can't be too cute with speed and the puck.
There are several options to repeat the past. Two years ago, the Gophers went to the Frozen Four after being embarrassed by North Dakota. Last year it was upset in the first round by Yale.
"I think we just got to learn that we got to play like did in the third period, come out ready to go. W got to do whatever it takes," Rau said. "Your best player gets the shot. We have to make sure we know where everyone is, mark our guys."
Minnesota's sorrows means a chance for Ohio State to win three games in three days, something Steve Rohlik knows firsthand being a part of Minnesota-Duluth's 2009 run through the WCHA Final Five.
"Like I told them before, this can happen."
OHIO STATE 1 - Nick Schilkey (13) (Tanner Fritz, Max McCormick 15:20 PP)
MINNESOTA 1 - Kyle Rau (12) (Taylor Cammarata, Travis Boyd 4:47 PP)
OHIO STATE 2 - Ryan Dzingel (21) (Tyler Lundey 9:08)
OHIO STATE 3 - Anthony Greco (5) (Drew Brevig, 19:33 ENG)
OSU 8 - 11 - 6 -- 25
MINN 12 - 10 - 9 -- 31
Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation. You can also follow him on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate