- Patrick Barron/Daily
By Greg Garno, Daily Sports Writer
Published November 17, 2013
OMAHA, Neb. — The members of the Michigan hockey team are doing what any good teammates would do after splitting their series against Nebraska-Omaha this weekend.
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When the second-ranked Wolverines (7-2-1) were prompted to weigh in on Michigan coach Red Berenson’s decision to start freshman goaltender Zach Nagelvoort on Friday night — a 3-2 loss — and sophomore Steve Racine on Saturday — a 4-3 win — their answers were somewhere between that of a broken record and a prerecorded answering machine.
“We’re definitely confident in both of those guys, and I definitely think it’s a huge bonus for us to be confident in two guys,” said sophomore forward Andrew Copp.
Added senior forward Derek DeBlois, “We know we have two great goalies that can come in and win us games. It’s a great situation to be in.”
Earlier in the week, associate head coach Billy Powers added: “If the goalies can make it hard on you, then that’s a good problem.”
But there’s no need for it to be a problem in the first place.
When Nagelvoort filled in admirably after Racine suffered a groin injury on Oct. 18 at New Hampshire, the problem was solved. It wasn’t until almost a month later, the week leading up to the series against Nebraska-Omaha, that Racine said he was 100-percent healthy.
And now, Nagelvoort should continue to start this season until he gives his coaches a reason to replace him. He may not be the better of the two goalies, but he does have the hotter hand, and at this point in the season, it’s necessary to find consistency.
After all, the Wolverines have almost always been a one-goalie team — it’s a strategy that worked well enough to qualify for 22 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. It helps that Michigan has had standouts like Josh Blackburn, Marty Turco, Al Montoya and Shawn Hunwick in net, but they all had the spot to themselves.
The Wolverines used a two-goalie system three years ago, when Berenson and the rest of the coaching staff alternated Hunwick and Bryan Hogan between the pipes until the Big Chill at the Big House, when Berenson opted to start Hogan.
If anything, the decision proved to be more stressful than effective for Hunwick. A junior at the time, Hunwick felt the pressure to win when he lost or keep looking over his shoulder when he did win.
“I’ve never really done well when we are splitting like that,” Hunwick said in an interview two years ago during his senior season. “I get a little bit too worried about the other guy, and all that other stuff before worrying about myself. I definitely was way too nervous and worried about Hogan way too much, how the team was playing in front of him and how they were playing in front of me. It was hard for me just to concentrate on the game at hand.”
But Hogan injured himself before the game, so Hunwick stepped in as a result. From that game on, Hunwick continued to play extremely well, even after Hogan recovered.
Michigan rode Hunwick all the way to a runner-up finish in the NCAA Tournament later that season.
Last season, the Wolverines played three goalies throughout the season. Michigan got off to one of its worst starts in recent program history and never recovered until, you guessed it, it found consistent goaltending.
If the system has worked so well for so long, why change it up?
Nagelvoort allowed three goals in Friday’s loss, and Racine allowed three goals the next night in a win. Who’s to say the Wolverines couldn’t have done the same on Saturday in front of Nagelvoort?
Berenson wanted to see his original starter tested after his absence, which of course makes sense. But it helps when the offense steps up, and the defense prevents open looks.
It’s not quite fair to replace one goalie after a subpar performance, especially after he has posted a 1.47 goals-against average, a .947 save percentage and a 4-1-1 record prior to the weekend.
His performance would earn him a starting job in almost any other program. Even after his worst performance statistically, Nagelvoort still sits sixth nationally among goaltenders in goals allowed and save percentage.
Starting Nagelvoort allows him to be more comfortable and find consistency in arguably the most important position in hockey, on top of helping his teammates do the same.
Berenson can switch up the two all he wants since both have proved they’re capable. But when the season comes down to a do-or-die game, and one needs to stand out above the rest, Berenson will have to choose.
If it didn’t work for one of the best goalies in Michigan history, why would it work for a true freshman?
Daily Sports Editor Everett Cook contributed reporting.
— Garno can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter: @G_Garno