SportsMonday Column: The seniors who broke two streaks
Jacob Trouba turned pro after one season, Andrew Copp after three. Jared Rutledge played in 10 games before returning to the United States Hockey League after one season. Daniel Milne played in just seven before moving back to Canada mid-season.
Boo Nieves stayed. Justin Selman stayed. Steve Racine stayed.
Of the seven players who entered the Michigan hockey program as the recruiting class of 2012, just those three lasted until the end. They suffered disappointment, paid their dues and battled when it wasn’t always easy. They were praised, then humbled, then praised again.
They began their careers on a team that ended the streak no one wanted to end, and they’ll go out ending the dubious streak that followed.
And on Saturday, they savored the reward they earned, a victory lap around Yost Ice Arena after their final home game. None of the other four — Rutledge, Milne, Trouba or Copp — experienced it.
“It’s too bad, because this is what they’re missing,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson after the Wolverines trounced Penn State, 6-1, on Senior Night to lock up an NCAA Tournament bid once and for all.
Only Nieves, Selman and Racine watched as tributes to their careers played on the video screen at Yost Ice Arena. Only they hugged their teammates and coaches, one by one, before skating off the ice. Only they will enjoy what comes next — a long-awaited NCAA Tournament berth.
Only they really know what that means.
When they changed, stretched and came to their postgame press conference, a reporter asked them what Saturday’s win against Penn State meant going forward.
“We’re back in the tournament now, right?” Selman asked. “Locked in?”
Yes, Selman was assured. For the first time in the seniors’ careers, Michigan has clinched an NCAA Tournament berth. One projection, from College Hockey News, gave the Wolverines a 99-percent chance entering Friday and a 99.9-percent chance going into Saturday.
When you’ve made the NCAA Tournament 22 years straight, maybe you can just round up. When you’ve missed it three straight, as these seniors have, that assumption is a little harder to make.
But Michigan secured the postseason berth the same way it has all season — with a resounding, indisputable demolition.
Nieves, Selman and Racine suffered as the first-year Penn State program ended their NCAA Tournament hopes two years ago. This season, they enjoyed retribution as they dominated the Nittany Lions in four meetings, including 7-1 and 6-1 blowouts at Yost Ice Arena on Friday and Saturday, respectively.
Each senior stuck around long enough to find redemption. Selman scored just 13 points combined in his first two seasons. He raised his career-high season total to 29 with two goals and an assist Friday and two more assists Saturday.
Berenson said Friday that the team would avoid making the whole week about the seniors playing their last home game. Not even the seniors themselves did. It didn’t strike Selman until after the game, when the public-address announcer called his name to honor his career.
“You hear about what’s gone on in the four years and what you’ve been a part of,” Selman said. “It’s just so much bigger than yourself.”
Selman’s linemate, Nieves, suffered similar growing pains earlier in his career. Berenson admitted Saturday he expected too much out of Nieves early in the forward’s career. But Nieves has improved constantly, and he had the all-around performances to prove it this weekend.
He finished with three goals, played on the penalty kill for a short-handed goal Friday and won 12 out of 15 faceoffs Saturday. He tied his career high with 29 points in a season, and if all goes well, he’ll have plenty of chances to add to it in the coming weeks.
“Some seniors can’t get out of their own way on Senior Night — they try so hard. But Boo Nieves could,” Berenson said. “He got out of everybody’s way, and he was one of the best players in the game from start to finish.”
And then there’s Racine, who burst onto the stage in 2013 when he led the Wolverines to the CCHA title game, where they almost prevented the 22-year streak from breaking in the first place. Michigan entered the conference tournament needing to win it all as the No. 7 seed, and it very nearly did. It swept Northern Michigan in the first round, upset Western Michigan in the second and stunned No. 1 seed Miami (Ohio) in the semifinals before falling to Notre Dame in the title game, all with Racine between the pipes.
But Racine has struggled to keep hold of the spotlight since. His goals-against average rose to 2.91 the year after, then 2.94 the year after that. He began to split time with newcomer Zach Nagelvoort, who eventually became an NHL Draft pick and appeared at times ready to take over the starting job. But Racine won out in the end, now taking the team back to the NCAA Tournament.
Saturday, Racine turned in his second strong performance in as many nights, and with 11:51 to go in the game and Michigan ahead 6-1, Berenson pulled him so that he could get a standing ovation from the crowd one last time.
But the fans weren’t done. Almost all of them stayed to see the senior class honored, right until the very end — just like the seniors themselves did.
“It’s like our fans are all parents of our players,” Berenson said. “They care about the players. They care about the seniors. They care about the team. I just think it’s a great tribute to our fans, how respectful they are and how aware they are of what’s going on.”
Before Michigan honored its three seniors individually, the PA announcer ran through their overall accomplishments from the past four years. Admittedly, they weren’t eye-popping. The Wolverines went 22-8-1 against Michigan State and Ohio State, with a few disappointing losses to underperforming rivals. They never made the NCAA Tournament, and they never won a conference tournament — each time falling one win short of securing an NCAA bid.
But their three seniors stayed, and now they have more to play for after they leave Yost for the final time.
Well, not exactly the final time, as Berenson pointed out.
“We’re going to be practicing here,” he said. “It’s not like we’re going away.”
By now, it’s clear going away just isn’t in their nature.