The Michigan hockey team has luxury between the pipes.
I’ll give you a second to wipe the coffee off your keyboard before I explain how one of the Wolverines’ most glaring weaknesses could easily be a strength.
It’s no secret that neither of the two freshmen goaltenders, Jared Rutledge and Steve Racine, has done much good since they arrived in Ann Arbor.
Rutledge, the presumed starter entering the season, allowed seven goals against Michigan State in East Lansing on Nov. 10 and hasn’t seen the ice since.
Racine started the year 3-0 but his lone win since came against Bowling Green, and he was mostly untested in that game. Most recently, against No. 13 Cornell at Madison Square Garden, Racine quite pathetically filled the crease typically occupied by New York Rangers’ All-Star netminder Henrik Lundqvist, allowing five goals in the loss.
Racine is ranked last in the CCHA in save percentage. If Rutledge had played enough minutes to qualify, that dubious honor would be his.
So how can Michigan, which went from having a goaltender who could steal games in Shawn Hunwick to having two who are constantly at risk of blowing them, possibly take comfort in any of its goalies?
Easy. Because it has three of them.
Michigan fans know junior Adam Janecyk only as the former backup to Shawn Hunwick, the brick wall that played goalie for the Wolverines last year.
He appeared in five games last season, including the boxing-match-turned-hockey-game in Marquette when Hunwick got ejected and a mid-season contest against Lake Superior State when he made his first-career start. He posted a 3.17 goals-against average and a .899 save percentage.
Middle-of-the-pack numbers, but at least he has that experience under his belt and has spent more time working with goaltending coach Josh Blackburn. So isn’t it fathomable that the lone Grand Rapids native on the Michigan roster is the very person who could carry the team there, where the NCAA Tournament West Regional will be held in March?
Blackburn said Racine plays a “dirtier” style in net than Rutledge, which explains those heart-attack moments for Michigan fans when he just does barely make it back to the crease in time and those times when he, well, doesn’t.
It’s not easy to play goaltender for Michigan as a freshman. Blackburn knows that from his playing days.
“I can tell you from being there, it’s a lot of pressure when you come here as a freshman,” said Blackburn, who certainly didn’t show it in the 1998-99 season when he recorded a 2.28 goals-against average and a 25-10-6-3 record. “All three of our guys can play. I see it in them, I know that they can play.”
So give the third one, the non-freshman, a chance.
“Before Hunwick, if you would’ve asked me I’d say, ‘You know, maybe we’ll get (Janecyk) in if we can,’ ” Blackburn said. “But bottom line, Janecyk can play.”
There probably isn’t going to be a single answer in net this season, nor should there be. Michigan coach Red Berenson has four goaltenders on the roster for the first time in years, counting injured redshirt sophomore Luke Dwyer, who has never seen game action. Berenson needs to have the ability to ride the hot hand and reward whomever performs best in practice.
But this isn’t a two-pony race anymore. It can’t be when neither is getting the job done. And Berenson is coming around to that.
“I told the goalies, ‘I’m not ruling anyone out,’ ” Berenson said. “There’s no question. … (Blackburn) and I will have a talk. (Blackburn) and the goalies will have a talk, and we’ll see where we are this weekend. But I wouldn’t rule anyone out.”
As a coach, it’s tough to break the confidence of two freshmen, one of who came to Ann Arbor with the starting job promised to him. But if thrown into the rotation, Janecyk might be able to produce where the other two have failed.
— Slovin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @mattslovin.