By Andrew Vitalis, Special to WCHA.com
Some hockey fans thought it was just another game. It wasn't.
Some believed it was just another win. But, not to the Buckeyes; and, definitely not to their head coach, Nadine Muzerall.
Last weekend, the Buckeyes traveled to Minnesota and skated away with a 3-2 win and a tie (Ohio State won the shootout). It marked the first win over the Gophers since 2007. Fittingly, behind the bench orchestrating the magic was Muzerall, a former University of Minnesota great who spent plenty of time in the past piling up wins against Ohio State, both as a player and as a longtime assistant coach at her alma mater.
"It was so personal going back to Minnesota. That was my home. It's not only where I played, but where I coached. My husband and I live there, our children were born there," commented Muzerall, now in her second season as Buckeyes head coach. "My husband is also a former football player for the Gophers, so we have a lot of maroon and gold pumping through our blood. I was very anxious. I wasn't nervous, but I was anxious. Having history with Brad (Frost) and Beth (Bethany Brausen). Knowing the coaches; they are great people and I know their culture has been strong for a while and they have a great tradition and that tradition comes from confidence."
Culture is something Muzerall talks about a lot. It's what propelled her to success as a player and assistant coach in Minneapolis prior to arriving in Columbus. The former All-American remembers watching the Gophers hoist the National Championship trophy four times as an assistant under Frost. It's a lasting impression on Muzerall, who has worked tirelessly trying to instill the same winning attitude at Ohio State. After finishing 14-18-5 last season (Muzerall's first), the Buckeyes have started the 2017-18 campaign by winning three for their first four games (3-0-1) on their way to a national ranking (No. 7) – the program's first since Jan. 12, 2015 and its highest since being ranked sixth on Oct 15, 2012. The culture, indeed, seems to be changing under Muzerall.
"Last year my hair was on fire. I was learning a lot of things being a head coach; especially at a fine institution here at Ohio State. The main thing is, these girls have to trust and respect you because if they don't they are not going to want to play for you and they are not going to believe what you tell them, so you have to convince them to buy into what you are selling. I think that once we established our culture and our values as a team, we then have to implement it," remarked Muzerall. "I think the biggest thing was to be a role model and hold myself accountable to what those values were. What matters to these girls? How am I going to relate to them? A lot of it, honestly, is not hockey-related. There is the teamwork and the effort piece and then most of it is the execution piece. We want to be relentless. Once we established those values and they trusted who I was and respected who I am, things started to fall into place rather quickly, quite honestly. I think this team was itching for structure for a while and now they have it."
It's a mindset. It is one thing to say it but it's something entirely different to believe it. The Buckeyes are starting to believe and so is the rest of the league. Muzerall and her staff constantly preach confidence, even going so far as having a former Navy Seal come talk to her team every month about the winning attitude Muzerall believes her team must have to make that jump to the next level. You can't argue with the results. Not only have the Buckeyes skated to a 3-0-1 record to start the year, they have simply played at another level. Twice this past weekend against Minnesota, Ohio State fought back from two-goal deficits. Offensively, after averaging less than two goals per game as a team last year, the Buckeyes have scored 16 goals in four games, including eight during their weekend series with the Gophers. After being out-shot last season by 454 shots, and outscored by 13 goals, this season (albeit early) the Buckeyes have turned the table – outshooting opponents by nearly 50 and scoring 16 goals to their opponents' eight (helped by the continued impressive play of redshirt-junior goaltender and 2016-17 second-team All-American Kassidy Sauve). Maybe the most impressive stat of all is the fact that of their 16 goals, only ONE has come on the power play, meaning Ohio State's five-on-five attack is clicking on all cylinders. Scoring five-on-five is supposed to be the hard part….
"I blame Peter (OSU Associate Head Coach Peter Elander), he's in charge of our power play," laughed Muzerall. "It's funny because when you are doing special teams, it's trial and error. You have to see who works well with whom and because we have nine new players we are trying to figure out what set up is going to work. We are hoping that we can produce more because we have to capitalize on those moments. Scoring five-on-five in this league is hard enough and when you have that opportunity on the power play you need to take advantage of that. We just have to be better and become more of a threat moving forward.
"We knew coming in that there would be more quantity and quality, and we would have some depth," continued Muzerall, when asked about the Buckeyes' scoring ability. "Remember, we only lost two players last year. We got a lot of new players this season. Don't get me wrong, they were key players for us who we lost, but we didn't lose more than two. Those players who came back, because of the bar I set and the expectations that I have, they talk to them (the newcomers). These girls came back faster and stronger. Their test results show that and you could see that in the games against Minnesota."
The mixture of returning talent, plus a boat-load of exciting newcomers, has been evident early for Ohio State. Returning for another season is Maddy Field, who led the team in scoring as a sophomore in 2016-17. Charly Dahlquist, who transferred from North Dakota, has already made an impact, scoring the tie-breaking, game-winning goal in the victory at Ridder Arena. Then there is a large (and talented) freshmen class who has changed the game. Two players in particular have captured the headlines early in the year thanks to their play-making ability and affinity to score in Emma Maltais and Tatum Skaggs. Both freshman forwards have exploded out of the gates scoring, and then scoring some more. Skaggs, who was just named WCHA Freshman of the Week for her weekend performance against Minnesota (after being named the league's Offensive Player of the Week the weekend prior), leads the country in goal-scoring with five tallies. Maltais, who was just named WCHA Offensive Player of the Week after scoring a goal and adding three assists against the Gophers last Friday and Saturday, is second in the conference in assists and third in points. Paired with Dahlquist, they form a line that might be the most dangerous in the country.
"They are constantly moving their feet, that's what we say is going to constantly make them a threat. Constantly moving their feet, constantly being present, constantly being a threat and they have been rewarded for it," replied Muzerall, when asked about her freshman duo. "They see the ice well. They don't just put the puck in the net; they can set up plays. They can make the key pass. They are great play-makers as well as great finishers. I think more importantly, and where you don't get a lot of credit most of the time when you are an offensive player is, they can play defense. They are defensively sound as well. They are not a liability; they don't go around thinking they need to jump up and always think offense. They win the battles consistently on defense and then they are rewarded offensively. They are complete two-way players and they understand the game. They also want to continually learn and have become students of the game, and that's what's going to make them elite players."
"I definitely have to give credit to my line-mates. It's such an honor playing with both of them. They both move the puck so then as a line, we get some chances," stated Skaggs. "I think coach Muzerall noticed that our three playing styles work well together so they stumbled upon that early on. I definitely wouldn't be able to do it without those two (Maltais and Dahlquist). I just keep my stick on the ice and Emma does all of the crafty stuff, and I've been able to be in the right place at the right time."
Added Maltais, "We haven't really changed our focus – it's always been defense first. That's been the message from the beginning, but we knew this year we added more speed as a team. Just being aggressive on the forecheck, I think that's really helped and our speed has made some teams panic back there. I think that also more shots on net have turned into getting more scoring opportunities and then getting more goals from that."
Whatever the reason, both Maltais and Skaggs have breathed an extra burst of oxygen into an already potent line-up, and they are enjoying every minute of it. You'll have to forgive them if you see both players pinching themselves from time to time instead of playing the puck; and why not when you consider their journey to Columbus. Maltais committed to Ohio State when she was a freshman in high school. Over the next several years she jumped from one team to the next, trying to prepare herself for the college game. One of her stops was playing for the Oakville Hornets, where she played with Field, her current Buckeye teammate. Despite committing to Ohio State so early, she never once wavered on her decision. Not once. She always wanted to be a Buckeye.
For Skaggs, the Hartland, Wis. native attended a hockey camp at Ohio State when she was in eighth grade. Soon after the camp, she received a call from then-head coach Nate Handrahan asking her if she wanted to be a Buckeye. Skaggs sat on the decision until her sophomore year, when she called OSU back and said yes. To prepare herself for the WCHA, Skaggs played for the Chicago Mission. That meant that every day, she traveled the hour and forty-five-minute drive (if there was no traffic) to Chicago for practice from her home. Every day. Still, despite all of the long car rides through rush hour traffic, she never once second-guessed her decision to play for Ohio State. Not once. Now both players are living their dream and they hope it's going to get even better.
"It's nothing I even thought I would be doing. It's my dream school. It's such an amazing university," said Skaggs. "Being able to pull the Ohio State jersey over my head every single game is such an honor, because not everyone is given such a great opportunity like this. So, my dream is to make the most of it and cherish every moment. In the blink of an eye it can be taken away, so I am just enjoying the moment, living in the present and loving life."
Muzerall knows a thing or two about the moment. A two-time Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award finalist and the all-time leading goal-scorer in the history of Golden Gopher women's hockey, she's had plenty of them as a player and now as a coach. Her advice to Maltais and Skaggs as well as her entire team? Enjoy the moment but don't get lost in it; there is still a lot of work yet to be done. Fifth-ranked Minnesota Duluth is next for the Buckeyes and top-ranked Wisconsin is on the horizon.
"Yes, we are winning games early but it is a long season. We are excited. Really what these girls didn't have in the past is having that mentality that, hey I have to get this done. Start thinking like a champion and thinking like a winner. What is it that you believe in? How are you going to execute it and what is the outcome? We talk about these things and talk to the girls about that every day. We start to talk that way and then you start to think that way," remarked Muzerall. "Enjoy the moment, relish the victory and enjoy it Saturday and Sunday. Monday is a new day and you have to start over. These girls have been tested. Either they have been down and came back (against Minnesota) or have been tested and have held their own. That shows their character. That has been interesting with such a young team. We have seven freshmen, so we are a young team. That speaks volumes about our leaders who have led the team but also the freshmen who have stepped up and buried the puck when we needed it. That's very promising for the weekend and the future."
The Buckeyes present and future face-off with the Bulldogs this weekend in Columbus and St. Cloud State follows the following week. The Badgers are less than a month away (November 4th and 5th).