DETROIT — The puck slipped between Steve Racine’s legs, and for a fleeting moment, it seemed the senior goaltender’s return to the ice had taken a turn for the worse.
Racine had stopped 13-of-13 shots in his first period since suffering a lower-body injury a month ago, but Northern Michigan battled back for a quick score to start the second and now, nine minutes later, had found the netminder’s five-hole.
Two Wildcats dove toward the crease and tapped the puck into the back of the net, and suddenly the Wolverines trailed, 2-1.
But Racine wouldn’t let his return be spoiled.
“After they score a goal, you’ve just kind of gotta forget about it,” Racine said. “I felt like I was playing good, I felt like I was seeing the puck well, so I just kind of moved on, forgot it happened, and focused on the next shot.”
Racine saved every remaining Northern Michigan shot — including 15 in a hectic third period — and finished the Wolverines’ Great Lakes Invitational opener on a strong high note. A year to the day after he was named the tournament’s MVP last season, the senior made sure to avoid disappointment on the same stage at Joe Louis Arena.
“There’s definitely a couple things I could’ve cleaned up on, but I’m just happy to be back,” Racine said. “Back to winning hockey games, especially in a great atmosphere like that.”
With Racine settling in after the Wildcats’ second goal, Michigan climbed back into the game with a power-play goal by senior forward Justin Selman in the second.
And while the Wolverines were unable to capitalize on a five-minute major penalty against Northern Michigan after freshman defenseman Joe Cecconi took a hit to the head, Racine held the Wildcats at bay until freshman forward Kyle Connor picked up the go-ahead score midway through the third period.
Racine’s performance came as a huge safety net for the Wolverines’ defense — star sophomore defenseman Zach Werenski was not available because of his commitment to the U.S. junior national team, and Cecconi didn’t return to the ice after the hit in the second period.
“He kept us in the game, gave us some life,” Selman said. “Our defense was a little strained right now, and he picked up the slack for them. Coming off an injury, he looks great, he looks fresh, and I’m excited to see him again tomorrow.”
The defense faced its toughest test late in the third, as Michigan faced a five-minute major of its own after junior forward Alex Kile was whistled for throwing an elbow to the head with seven minutes remaining in the game.
But the Wolverines successfully killed the penalty, thanks largely to Racine’s renewed focus and plenty of help from the penalty-kill unit, which blocked a number of shots in the game’s final sequence. Michigan blocked 25 shots in total, and the final penalty kill left the Wolverines 3-for-3 on the night in shorthanded situations.
Michigan coach Red Berenson was quick to praise his defense, but he commended Racine for keeping the Wolverines close the whole way.
“He made some early saves — those early goals would have been costly,” Berenson said. “He made the saves when he had to, and he gave us a chance.”
Racine had the extra benefit of a long break to recover — Michigan hadn’t played a game since its December 12 loss to Minnesota — setting up a fitting return at the very tournament he dominated a year ago.
“The break came at a good time for Steve,” Berenson said.“He’s had a chance to recover and refocus, and he started off strong tonight, played well all night.”