CINCINATTI — The bench spilt over onto the ice, horn blaring overhead.
The Wolverines made a beeline toward junior Tyler Motte — the forward who buried an overtime shot to send Michigan past Notre Dame and into the Midwest Regional Final of the NCAA Hockey Tournament.
The Motte-induced mob built and built, until its last member arrived to complete the celebration: Steve Racine.
His isolated arrival to the huddle was appropriate.
The senior netminder has had a lonely career in the maize and blue sweater. That’s an aspect most people need to accept as a goaltender, but Racine’s experience has been different.
Since entering the program as a freshman, he’s been handed starting jobs, only to have them taken away. He’s earned praise, then criticism, then praise again, in an ever-fluctuating cycle.
But on Friday night, he reminded Notre Dame why he was between the pipes his freshman year in 2013, when the Fighting Irish ended Michigan’s 22-year streak of NCAA Tournament appearances.
He also reminded them why, despite the peaks and valleys that have come with his career, he was there to face them again as a senior.
And in the three years since Racine couldn’t send Notre Dame home in the CCHA Championship, he hasn’t forgotten.
“Notre Dame, my freshman year, ended the streak,” he said Sunday. “Getting back at them would be nice.”
That’s exactly what he did, in the most dominant way possible. Racine notched 28 saves through three periods and just over eight minutes of overtime.
They weren’t just routine saves, though, and they didn’t come when Michigan was controlling the game in a dominant fashion as it had for the majority of the season.
Racine rose to the occasion when Notre Dame was taking it to the Wolverines, attempting to put the game out of reach. Michigan’s first line was sputtering, and there appeared to be no immediate solution.
The Wolverines were at a point where, earlier in the season, they would have crumbled in a desperate search for an option outside of Connor, Compher and Motte.
But aside from one questionable goal, Racine shut the door firmly — making sprawling save after sprawling save and giving Michigan the time to jumpstart its faltering attack.
“We had the odd, bad goal against,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “But I mean, I watch TV every night, and I watch the NHL, and they give up bad goals. But Steve Racine is giving Michigan a chance to be where we are.”
Added Compher: “He had a hell of a game, and it was great to have them back there, especially when you’re trying to make a comeback. When you make big saves like that, it keeps the bench going, it keeps the guys going and helps the momentum. That’s what he did all night, kept us in the game.”
The big saves haven’t always come easy for Racine, though. Over the years, he earned a reputation for inconsistency — at times showing flashes of brilliance like Friday night, but other times conceding the easy goal.
For that reason, he played 25 games his freshman year, 13 his sophomore year and 21 his junior year, before finally claiming a firm hold of the starting job at the Great Lakes Invitational this year.
Since then, though, Racine has been playing like a man possessed. And his influence has extended to the team as a whole — something most evident Friday night.
“Once you build up the credit, then when the team doesn’t get off to a great start, it’s much easier to comeback sometimes because they trust that you’re going to get a save,” said Michigan goaltending coach Steve Shields. “That’s why you need goaltending — it’s not just to make the saves, it’s to give the guys that are learning to be hockey players a chance to make mistakes.
“If every time you step on the ice as a player, you’re afraid the puck’s going to be in your net, it’s hard to move it’s hard to become a team and it’s hard to play together because you’re always down and you never know if you’re going to get a save. Now, he’s been giving us a save lately.”
Racine made far more than one game-saving stop Friday night.
This time, he ended Notre Dame’s season. He earned redemption — not just from his freshman year, but for all the uncertainty he has faced.
So as Racine arrived last to the huddle, it wasn’t a symbol of loneliness. It was a lasting assertion that he’s the final piece of the puzzle.