- Patrick Barron/Daily
By Matt Slovin, Managing Editor
Published February 24, 2013
COLUMBUS — The desperate Michigan hockey team traveled to Ohio State this weekend with a legitimate chance at finishing last in the CCHA, an ugly-as-sin road record and a goaltending problem.
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The Wolverines returned with voices hoarse from singing “The Victors,” a sign of the team’s first road sweep of the season, and a prayer at hosting a playoff series.
And as for that goalie situation — you know, the one that had all four of the team’s backstops in contention for the starting job in the season’s second-to-last week of the regular season — fuhgeddaboutit.
No, seriously, forget about it.
For a team that’s been swamped in uncertainty this year — injuries, a rotating presence in net, even a mid-season defection (remember Daniel Milne?) — it’s high time for some consistency.
Any of the four netminders could’ve played this weekend. Coach Red Berenson might as well have drawn straws.
Freshman Steve Racine was the name Berenson settled on. And, in his first start since Dec. 14, Racine was everything the Wolverines needed him to be. Playing behind a rejuvenated offense, Racine didn’t need to play perfectly, and he didn’t. But he was strong enough to keep the team in the game late and didn’t collapse as the games wore on, bucking the crippling trend for Michigan, at least temporarily.
“These are tough games to play in, especially when they’re close like 3-3 going into the third, and look at (Friday) night — 2-0 going into the third, and even though (Racine) gave up three, he hung in there,” Berenson said. “Goalies aren’t going to be happy with the goals against, but nevertheless, he gave us a chance to win.
“We gave him the goals.”
The Wolverines aren’t always going to give their goalies the run support that Racine received against Ohio State. And Racine still gave up a couple soft goals.
But he was, at times, quite brilliant and after his two biggest stops of the weekend, the team seemed to get a new life. Far too often this season, we’ve seen the Michigan goalie let in a goal that had no place being scored, followed by a complete breakdown of the entire team.
In the second period on Saturday, the game changed completely when Racine turned away a breakaway and a 3-on-1 rush to keep the game tied entering the third period.
Now that Racine has shown he’s capable of making these plays, there’s no reason for Michigan not to keep going back to him.
Clearly, the Wolverines need to have one goalie to stick with entering the CCHA playoffs, and it needs to be Racine. Especially when dealing with freshmen netminders, confidence is extremely important and, with the rocky start Racine and fellow freshman Jared Rutledge got off to, they’re fragile. But the time for experimentation has long since passed — it’s decision time.
I’ll admit I’ve argued for his benching earlier this season, but he became the clear choice this weekend to close out the season.
Last Wednesday, after the team’s end-of-practice shootout dragged into extra rounds, Racine came up with the big save and his teammates skated over to congratulate him.
A similar scene, the Wolverines embracing Racine, played out on Friday and Saturday in Columbus.
Could this — what is it again? — right, winning become a habit? Can Racine continue to give the team the chance to win, and can the team respond by making sure he gets the goals he needs?
Michigan’s played eight road games in the season’s second half, and that’s precisely when Berenson began turning the goal over to junior Adam Janecyk and Rutledge. Racine never had the chance to prove he could put up a fight on the road. He lost one and tied one at Northern Michigan way back in early November, and he was in between the pipes for another tie at Ferris State.
But after all of the terrible road performances this team has had, its best weekend of the season somehow came away from home. And if the Wolverines are going to make noise in the CCHA Tournament, they’ll have to play at least some of it, and likely all of it, away from Yost Ice Arena.
There’s momentum here, finally, with Racine in net. Stick with him, and if the offense doesn’t sputter out, there are still wins out there for this team. There are more post-game celebrations around Racine left.
If I’m Berenson, I call Racine into my office Monday afternoon. I sit him down and tell him the job is his and that I believe he gives the team the best chance to win.
I tell him to think of the team’s offensive explosion this weekend as its way of showing him it has his back. Then I tell him to get to work. As Berenson said Saturday night, you won’t win many games giving up three goals.
-Slovin remembers Daniel Milne. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter: @MattSlovin