It started with his first career goal just three weeks ago.
After going scoreless — and pointless — in the Michigan hockey team’s first 23 games, forward Dakota Raabe finally broke through with a game-winner against then-No. 12 Penn State.
With the goal came a sense of relief. And with that, a newfound confidence manifested.
The freshman has fired eight shots in his past five games after just 13 in his first 16. In that span, he’s posted three points — two goals and an assist — and increased ice time on both special team units after flying completely under the radar through December.
“I’ve been hanging onto the puck a little more,” Raabe said. “I’ve been able to make better plays instead of just throwing (the puck) away like I felt I was doing before.”
The same can be said about making a difference on the ice. Instead of throwing away his chance to get significant minutes, Raabe has stepped up since that first goal, and coaches, teammates and opponents have noticed. No longer is his status in the lineup a question mark, and watching from the press box as a healthy scratch seems to be behind him.
It was during Friday night’s 5-3 victory over then-No. 18 Wisconsin when the Capistrano Beach, Ca. native truly solidified his role on a No. 19 Michigan team vying to qualify for postseason play.
A high-energy presence on the penalty kill unit, Raabe forced a handful of turnovers in the Badgers’ defensive zone. Two resulted in Wisconsin penalties, which stifled the visitors’ power play opportunities.
A roughing call halfway through the first period sent junior forward Brendan Warren to the box and the penalty kill onto the ice for the first time. The Badgers looked ready to strike for the second time in the frame, controlling the puck in their offensive zone and not allowing the Wolverines quality chances to clear.
But with 20 seconds left on the power play, Raabe stole the puck near the neutral zone for a breakaway and potential shorthanded goal. To stop the speedster, Wisconsin committed a hooking penalty, leading to four-on-four play. And on the ensuing Michigan power play, junior defenseman Joseph Cecconi’s wrist shot from the left circle found the back of the net, tying the game at one apiece.
During the second period, the Badgers threatened on another man advantage, outworking the Wolverines and trying to fight back from a 3-1 deficit.
That’s when Raabe jumped in for his next penalty kill shift.
With 37 seconds remaining on the power play, the 5-foot-9 forward sped past Wisconsin defenders to meet goaltender Jack Berry behind the net. Unable to fully clear the puck from the zone, Berry flattened Raabe, pushing him into the ice with two hands and sitting on top of him in front of the crease. But the referee was right there, calling the netminder for holding, effectively ending the Badgers’ power play in its tracks.
A visibly frustrated Berry was serenaded by mocking “Berry” chants from the Michigan faithful. Raabe, on the other hand, was noticeably fired up, skating off the ice with a swagger hidden over the first months of the season. He was greeted at the bench by teammates and coaches slapping his helmet and patting him on the back, commending his hustle when the Wolverines needed it most.
It was only fitting that with one minute to go in regulation, the ravenous Raabe poked the puck away from a Badger skater and was rewarded with an empty-net goal to seal the deal.
After killing six of seven power plays, the next night, Raabe was promoted to play on the same line as junior Jake Slaker and freshman Josh Norris, the most productive forward tandem the past month. And just like Friday, Raabe’s quick clears from the zone and hostile defense on the penalty kill muted Wisconsin’s power play when he was on the ice.
“His growth has been huge,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “You can see he can skate. He’s starting to skate now and I think that’s what everything starts with. Stalking on loose pucks, just doing the things that we ask him to do.”
Pearson notes Raabe’s keen sense for smart and situational hockey, his work ethic on both sides of the puck and his speed — important characteristics to Pearson, who stresses a faster pace of play — as keys to his renaissance.
Not only has Raabe’s self-assurance increased during the back half of the season, but Pearson’s confidence in the youngster has also blossomed.
Pearson admits he didn’t feel comfortable having Raabe on the ice in late-game situations early in the season. But after the recent uptick in performance, the coach is now willing to call No. 12 much more often.
“He’s not a freshman anymore,” Pearson said. “He’s one of those guys who came back after the break and has really stepped his game up. And good for him and now he’s got some confidence. … He may not be the biggest guy on the ice, but he plays big and he makes a big difference on our team.”