On a Tuesday afternoon following a preseason practice in September, Michigan hockey coach Mel Pearson was asked about the potential impact of the Wolverines’ incoming class of freshmen.
Pearson highlighted the obvious names — forward Josh Norris, a first-round NHL Draft pick last June, and defenseman Quinn Hughes, a likely top-10 selection next summer — calling them “worth the price of admission.” But alongside those two blue-chip prospects, Pearson also brought up a lesser-known newcomer.
“We’ve got a kid named Dakota Raabe,” Pearson said, “who’s shown really well so far.”
A dedicated observer might have been familiar with Raabe’s skill and skating ability. The 5-foot-9 forward from Capistrano Beach, Ca. spent three productive years with the Wenatchee Wild of the BCHL, where he notched 58 points in 58 games his final season.
However, through Michigan’s first 23 games, the casual or first-time hockey spectator would have had a hard time detecting Raabe’s presence. If one only looked at the boxscore, they might not have noticed him at all. Coming into this weekend, Raabe was the only Wolverine, save goaltenders Hayden Lavigne and Jack LaFontaine, to not have registered a single point.
But that’s not what Pearson or Michigan’s coaching staff focused on.
On Friday night, freshman forward Jack Becker scored the Wolverines’ first two goals in a 4-0 rout of Penn State — the first multi-goal game of his career. After the game, Pearson was asked if Becker’s performance was indicative of players growing into their roles, something Pearson has stressed constantly.
“Some nights you’re rewarded offensively with some points, and others you’re not, but you still have to bring it every night,” he said. “It’s good to see guys rewarded for all their hard work. I thought Dakota Raabe — I don’t know if Dakota’s got a point yet, but I had someone call me this week and say, ‘Wow, who’s that 12 (Raabe’s jersey number) playing at Minnesota? I mean, he was all over the place!’
“He’s doing some good things, killing some penalties. He’s not maybe putting up the points, but his contributions aren’t unnoticed.”
To a trained eye such as Pearson’s, those contributions have been on full display the past few weeks. During the third period last Saturday at Minnesota, Michigan’s third line of Raabe and sophomores Adam Winborg and James Sanchez suffocated the Golden Gophers with a clutch, 45-second shift in which the puck never left the Minnesota zone.
Raabe has found a home on the Wolverines’ penalty-kill as well. The unit was languishing before this weekend, having stopped just 75 percent of their opponents’ chances — ranking among the five worst teams in the country.
The Nittany Lions — who rank sixteenth in the nation on the power-play — had five such opportunities against Michigan, and failed to capitalize on a single one. Raabe played an integral role in all of them, making crucial clearances on a number of chances, and swiftly skating all over the ice to stifle Penn State’s attack.
“He’s done a good job,” Pearson said Saturday. “He’s given us some speed, but … he’s playing grittier. Getting involved, he’s got a good stick. He was a good scorer in junior hockey last year, he’s capable and he killed penalties. So he’s smart enough, he can understand on the PK what to do.”
Pearson’s final comments Friday expressed optimism about Raabe’s future.
“You’d like to see him get rewarded,” Pearson said, “and he will eventually.”
With just under six minutes to go in the third period Saturday, Michigan led Penn State 2-0. An earlier roughing penalty on sophomore defenseman Griffin Luce, followed shortly with an interference call on Nittany Lion forward Andrew Sturtz, had resulted in a minute and a half of 4-on-4 hockey, most of which had already elapsed.
Penn State forward Denis Smirnov chased the puck towards the boards behind the net, but Michigan defenseman Sam Piazza got there first. Piazza chipped it left towards sophomore defenseman Luke Martin, who put his stick on the puck and turned up the ice.
Looking up, Martin saw Raabe streaking ahead of everyone near center-ice. With three players on either side of the passing lane, he would need a perfect effort to hit his target.
Martin took four strides forward and let fly near the right circle. The puck found the sweet-spot of Raabe’s stick like a quarterback hitting a receiver on a fly pattern. A picture-perfect “dime,” to borrow more from football terminology.
It was clear no one was going to catch Raabe from behind. Peyton Jones, the Penn State goaltender, was the only chance.
Raabe shot up the ice and towards the net. When he was about three feet in front of Jones, he held the puck out to his right. Then, just as soon as Jones bit on the fake, Raabe pulled it away and gave one final flick of his stick.
The next time Jones saw the puck, it was in the back of the net.
Yost Ice Arena erupted. Raabe raised both his arms in jubilation as his momentum carried him into the embrace of Piazza and sophomore forward Jake Slaker. The Wolverines led the No. 12 team in the nation by three goals with five minutes to play.
The goal itself was such a textbook finish, you’d think Raabe had done it before. Raabe, in fact, couldn’t even recollect the play.
“Honestly, I don’t even remember it,” he said. “I think I blacked out when I did it. Great pass by Martin and it was a great experience for sure.”
But while he may not remember exactly how it happened, Raabe certainly remembers the fact that for the first time in his college career, he had scored a goal. All his hard work killing penalties and chasing pucks around the ice had been rewarded.
“I don’t know how many games it was since he scored a goal, and you can start to doubt yourself a little bit,” Pearson said. “But he’s gained our trust as coaches and that’s why we had him out in that situation, because he can skate. He’s got some speed and you saw it on there, just broke away, and what a great move on the goaltender.”
Not only that, the Nittany Lions scored two goals in the game’s final two minutes, making Raabe’s first collegiate goal a game-winner.
It appears all those goalless games were worth the wait.
“It was frustrating for sure,” Raabe said. “A lot of it was just — I think it’s just little things and I was trying to stay positive. At times, negatives would creep in, but I would just try to play it simple and just do what I could and what Mel wanted me to do.
“And it finally paid off.”