Ohio State is playing in the women’s Frozen Four for the first time on Friday. It’s been a remarkable run for the Buckeyes, and for head coach Nadine Muzerall, who took over the program late in the fall of 2017 to become the program’s third head coach in as many seasons. Patrick Borzi of the New York Times has a terrific feature on Muzerall, explaining her role in Ohio State’s turnaround.
There’s little doubt that Muzerall is a terrific coach and Ohio State should be in good hands for the foreseeable future. But it’s also worth pointing out that they likely would not have had this level of success so quickly had it not been for a number of factors working in their favor to help them put together this special season.
Here are some of the factors that helped Ohio State get to this position so quickly.
- The Cupboard Wasn’t Bare
Of course it is less than ideal coming into a situation as the third head coach in as many years. But from a talent perspective, Muzerall inherited about as good of a situation as any new coach could hope for.
It started in net with one of the best goalies in the country in Kassidy Sauve, who had sat the previous season due to injury, but returned to give the Buckeyes exceptional play in goal. She also inherited the number one recruit in the country in defenseman Jincy Dunne, who sat out all of previous head coach Jenny Potter’s one season with concussion issues before returning last season.
Muzerall also inherited a healthy stable of recruits which included Emma Maltais, a top player out of Canada, who has led the Buckeyes in scoring this year and was named WCHA rookie of the year. During the coaching transition, Maltais could have chosen to go to another school, as a handful of Buckeye recruits did, but Maltais said on Thursday that she knew Muzerall from one of her first national camps with Hockey Canada and was excited to have her as a coach.
The Buckeyes have recruited really well under Muzerall to this point, but having some real talent already in place minimized the transition period they’d need.
Having talent is one thing, but being able to take advantage of it is another. And that is what Ohio State has been able to do this season.
It’s difficult to overstate how tough it is for players to go through three different head coaches, and three different systems and styles of play in three years. They finally look like a team with real direction that knows how they want to play. There’s also a real sense that after having gone through some really tough times, Ohio State is having fun playing hockey again, and that has led to better results on the ice.
They’ve gotten exceptional performances from their upperclassmen who have been through a lot in their time in Columbus, especially on the blue line where senior Dani Sadek and junior Lauren Boyle have helped Dunne carry the team.
3. North Dakota Cut Their Program
Prior to the season, I declared Minnesota Duluth the biggest beneficiaries of North Dakota’s decision to drop their program last summer when the Bulldogs picked up North Dakota’s second-leading scorer in Ryleigh Houston and top recruit in Ashton Bell. And the Bulldogs may still end up being the big winner when they add former North Dakota recruit Gabbie Hughes next year.
But in the short-term, it was without a doubt the Buckeyes that benefited the most. They made a key acquisition from North Dakota in forward Charly Dahlquist, who quickly found a role centering Ohio State’s top line. While Houston struggled to find the same chemistry with the Bulldogs that she had in North Dakota and saw her point total drop from 26 the year prior to just 15 this year, Dahlquist was almost the exact opposite. She went from 15 points as a sophomore in her final year in Grand Forks to 23 points this year. She added an element of grit and toughness to a young line-up as well.
They made an equally important acquisition behind the bench as well. When assistant coach Jess Koizumi—hired at the very last minute last fall by Muzerall—left over the summer to take an associate head coaching job at Vermont, it opened up a spot for the Buckeyes to hire former North Dakota assistant coach Peter Elander. Elander, now forever known as the guy that taught Jocelyn Lamoureux that shootout move, is an incredible technical coach, and has made a big impact on Ohio State’s program throughout the year.
4. It’s an Olympic Year
If ever there was a year for a non-traditional power to make a run, it’s in an Olympic year where college hockey’s elite is off representing their country at the Olympics. The two biggest moments that helped Ohio State get into the tournament this year were an early season win and tie at Minnesota, and a late-season sweep of the Gophers at home. It’s impossible to say for sure that the result would have been different, but it is worth taking into consideration that Minnesota was essentially without their entire first line this year with Kelly Pannek, and Sarah and Amy Potomak sitting out the year for the Olympics.
One of the biggest difficulties for teams trying to match up against powerhouse programs like Minnesota and Wisconsin is that it is near impossible to match their depth throughout the line-up. But missing that entire top line made Minnesota a team that relied heavily on their top two lines for most of the scoring, similar to a team like Ohio State, and really leveled the playing field.