Before the Michigan hockey team traveled to Ohio State two weeks ago, freshman goalie Steve Racine hadn’t appeared on the ice for the Wolverines in 42 days.
His last appearance before Michigan’s 5-3 Friday night victory in Columbus was an abysmal performance against Alaska in which he was taken out of the game during the second intermission after giving up four goals on just 17 shots.
But during the Wolverines’ regular-season finale this past weekend against Ferris State, the Williamsville, N.Y., native held the Bulldogs to one goal in each game, while recording a shootout victory after holding all three Ferris State shooters scoreless. His performance against the Bulldogs earned him the CCHA Gongshow Rookie of the Week award — his first.
“I think he has a little bit of confidence in himself now, especially after last weekend where he made a few game-saving saves,” said junior defenseman Mac Bennett. “He’s playing confident and I think that means the world to a goalie.”
Racine’s confidence has soared as he posted a 3-0-1 record during Michigan’s final four games of the season. He gave up eight goals in four games during this stretch and lowered his goals allowed per game from 3.17 to 2.82.
Throughout the year, the goalie position has been a giant question mark. Freshman Jared Rutledge, junior Adam Janecyk and Racine have been rotating in and out of the starting spot, with none of the three showing the coaches enough consistency to warrant the title of starter.
Racine currently has a 7-5-3 record on the year, though, and in the past two weeks has become the consistent netminder that Michigan coach Red Berenson has come to expect every season. But going into the series with the Buckeyes two weeks ago, Berenson didn’t know what to expect.
“I can tell you (Racine) stayed focused and was working hard in practice, but we weren’t seeing anything different than we saw in November,” Berenson said about the week leading up to the Ohio State series. “But once he got in the Ohio State weekend, good for him. There was a question mark, and I can tell you on the bus, we weren’t 100-percent sure that Racine was going to start that first game on the trip down.
“We decided that he was the one that would give us the best chance, and we were trying to play desperation hockey. Our team gave him a real good weekend and he gave us a decent weekend.”
Though Racine still gave up six goals in two games against the Buckeyes, he did enough to earn two straight victories.
Whether it was the time off or Racine gaining experience during his hiatus from the starting role, he came into the Wolverines’ series last weekend looking like a different goalie. Bennett said that Racine seems more confident and that a “sense of calm and a sense of poise in the net has been helping him.”
Whatever the reasons behind Racine’s transformation, the defense has been equally as at fault as the goaltending for the alarmingly high number of goals against. The Wolverines’ 3.44 goals allowed per game ranks last in the conference, and opposing teams have continually scored easy goals because of poor defensive-zone coverage. Berenson sees a correlation between the improvement in goaltending and the defensive play.
“I think our team has more confidence and we have a little more stability on defense,” Berenson said. “I think our defense is better — they’re not there yet, but they are much better than they were a month ago, and I think that’s helping our goalies as well.”
With the first round of the CCHA playoffs looming ahead for Michigan this weekend, Racine will play a critical role in any hope the Wolverines have of advancing. As goalies can easily get down on themselves when things aren’t going their way, Racine will instead carry four impressive performances into Yost Ice Arena when Michigan squares off against Northern Michigan.
And along with Racine’s newfound confidence in himself, the coaches and players appear to have a similar confidence in the young netminder.
“It’s a lot easier to play when you know you have a goaltender who’s going to make saves,” Bennett said.