On road trips, Steve Racine always stays alone. It’s been that way since his freshman year.
The Michigan hockey coaching staff never told the senior goaltender why he gets his own room in the team hotel, but Racine has a guess.
“I think (coach Red Berenson) just wants me to focus more,” Racine said. “Doctor’s orders.”
In any case, Berenson’s plan is finally working.
After three and a half years, Racine is playing the best hockey he ever has in a Michigan uniform. Berenson named him the team’s bona fide starter more than three months ago. For his last six games, he boasts a .931 save percentage, a career high for any stretch over five games that he has played.
And this past weekend, he was the only reason Michigan managed to escape Madison with five points, rather than three. In Saturday’s contest against Wisconsin, the Wolverines won in a shootout, despite surrendering four goals.
“You should’ve seen him at Wisconsin,” Berenson said. “He stood on his head, and we had no business winning the game based on the chances we gave up.
“That was his best game of the year.”
It’s odd that Berenson would call Racine’s best game of the year one in which he let in four goals. But he’s right.
Racine handled 50 shots in that game. He made sprawling kick saves and swooping glove saves on countless Wisconsin 3-on-1 opportunities. They were grade-A chances, and goals Michigan fans wouldn’t shake their heads at if Racine were to let any of those pucks in.
“We haven’t done a great job helping him out all year,” said junior forward Tyler Motte. “It’s something we’re focusing on — the D-zone and doing our best to help him out.”
Motte referenced the defensive lapses that don’t seem to go away, no matter how many times the players have stressed they are working on them.
You don’t have to dig deep in the history books to see that Michigan has dealt with this before. Just look to last season.
The Wolverines finished the year with the nation’s best offense, yet ranked in the bottom half in team defense. What did that get them?
Fast-forward eight months, and now you have a strikingly similar Michigan team. The Wolverines average 4.78 goals per game — nearing Quinnipiac’s record of 5.42 goals per game, which was set in 1999.
However, like a year ago, the Wolverines allow 3.00 goals per game, which ranks in the bottom half of the NCAA.
But that’s no longer because of a lack of solid goaltending.
“I’m still lamenting our goals-against,” Berenson said. “It’s not our goalies. A couple years ago, we would’ve said our goalie needed to play better, but our goalies have given us a shot.”
A big part of that is the addition of Steve Shields, a former Wolverine great, as goaltending coach. Whereas Racine used to have a goalie coach just twice a week, he now has one around every day to help fine-tune even the smallest aspects of his game.
In Friday’s 4-1 win over Wisconsin, Racine allowed one goal that shouldn’t have counted — officials failed to notice the puck slid in through the side of the net. But Shields still found a way to coach Racine about that moment.
“Working with Steve allows me to know exactly what I need to do and to learn what I’m doing when I am playing my best,” Racine said. “We found a direct correlation to how I’ve been practicing leading into games, and working harder is just giving me the foundation to have good weekends.
“I tell him all the time about how happy I am to have him here. He understands exactly what I need to do to play my best. The way I feel when I am playing well, he knows that exactly and can tap into that and help me to play my best.”
It has certainly showed in Racine’s last 12 games as the starter — the longest starting stretch of his Michigan career. He has given his team a chance in each of those games.
So when the Wolverines hit the road for the postseason, and likely the NCAA Tournament, two things are for certain: Racine will show up as he has all year, and he’ll have his own hotel room — doctor’s orders.