DETROIT — When the clock reached triple zeroes and the reality of the Michigan hockey team’s 3-1 loss to Notre Dame in the CCHA Championship game finally started to sink in, senior captain A.J. Treais went over to freshman goalie Steve Racine.
He was the first teammate that Treais saw, but Treais knew that Racine would need a little extra consolation after the game — the goalie was carrying the weight of the team’s loss on his shoulders.
Treais later said that Michigan wouldn’t have been in the game if it weren’t for Racine. And though Racine is certainly part of the reason for the Wolverines’ appearance in the CCHA finals, he was also the reason why Michigan was able to stay in the game.
The game was close until it wasn’t. Though the score was knotted at one entering the final period, the Wolverines were outshot, out-chanced and outplayed for the remainder of the game. The Fighting Irish’s go-ahead goal came less than 30 seconds into the final frame, and the Wolverines couldn’t generate enough offensive opportunities to match it.
But until that point, Michigan managed to skate with Notre Dame. And the team can thank Racine for that.
Playing in what Michigan coach Red Berenson called his goalie’s “best game of the season,” Racine faced a total of 33 Notre Dame shots and came up with the big saves during the first two periods to stymie an aggressive Fighting Irish offense.
“(Racine) was sharp, good for him,” Berenson said. “We needed that and any time a team outshoots you like that in the first period, you’ve got to be ready and he was ready.”
The emergence of Racine as Michigan’s first choice behind the crease for the last 10 games has been unexpected to say the least, considering his less-than-ideal start for the Wolverines in the first two months of the season in which he gave up an average of over three goals per game.
The Fighting Irish outshot Michigan, 18-6, in the first frame, a period which was almost exclusively played in the Wolverines’ zone. Though the defense took extra care to carefully clear the puck and limit the number of turnovers in front of the net, Racine was there to catch the mistakes, including corralling his own rebounds.
But if Racine was tested in the first period by a constant peppering of shots from Notre Dame, then it became even more evident in the second frame when Michigan took three penalties.
For the second consecutive game, the Wolverines scored shorthanded. Junior forward Derek DeBlois tallied his third shorthanded goal of the year, tying him for second in the country.
But perhaps more important than the offensive chances generated by the penalty kill was the way it stepped up defensively.
Berenson always says that a team’s best penalty killer is its goalie, and though Racine made the penalty kill’s life easier by coming up with the big saves, the unit in turn tried to lessen Racine’s load by stepping up its level of play.
“I think guys just getting in front of shots and playing desperate hockey,” said senior forward Kevin Lynch on the penalty-kill unit’s performance. “We’re just trying to get in front of shots to take some of the heat off Steve. If you block a shot, sometimes you can catch a break. We had a couple of those.”
With a little more than a minute left in the game and Michigan down by one, Racine looked to the bench. He saw the signal and skated off the ice, so the Wolverines could try and find an equalizer with an extra attacker.
But as he was halfway towards the bench, Notre Dame gained possession of the puck and skated into Michigan’s zone. Racine saw what was happening and skated back to the crease for dear life in a last-ditch effort to try and stop the empty-net goal.
And Racine, who hadn’t missed a beat all game, was a few paces too short.