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March 2, 2013

Goalie Steve Racine makes NCAA Tournament possible

Poor Travis Oulette. The Bulldog forward was denied not once, not twice, but three times on breakaways (the last one a shootout attempt) by that very thing that gives Michigan a chance to extend its NCAA Tournament streak to 23 - a ridiculously hot goalie.

Freshman Steve Racine made 24 saves Saturday night (and three more in the shootout) and 46 this weekend in holding Ferris State to just two goals, including a number of high-intensity, point-blank saves throughout the series as Michigan eyes a CCHA Tournament run - six wins in a possible eight games - to mirror the 2010 season, when, like now, U-M had to earn the conference crown to book its ticket to the NCAAs.

"I don't think any person in that locker room has any doubt we're going to go on a run, and that we can keep winning and keep playing Michigan hockey," senior forward Kevin Lynch said. "Everyone believes that we can do things that a lot of people think we can't do. Even when we were losing, every game we came to the rink, we didn't doubt ourselves.

"We're putting the pieces together. Teams have seen how we can play. We're playing Michigan hockey and I think we're going to be a pretty scary team in the CCHA Tournament."

It was just two weeks ago that head coach Red Berenson was considering playing redshirt sophomore walk-on Luke Dwyer against Ohio State Feb. 22-23. Instead, he went with Racine in the opener, with his performance ultimately deciding who would start in net the second night. Racine made 29 saves in a 5-3 win, and 25 saves in a 6-3 win that Saturday, giving U-M its first road series sweep of the season.

"The last couple months I've really been working hard in practice to get better," the rookie said. "I was playing a lot in the beginning of the year and once that went away, you notice you maybe took it for granted a little bit, so I just tried to work hard and get back in there, and now I want to take advantage of my opportunity."

He did that and more this weekend. Racine was unbeatable, turning aside every kind of shot attempt. The only two he allowed came on a power play Friday and off a ricochet tonight that he never saw. Everything else he swatted away, caught, blocked with his pads, denying, denying, denying Ferris State and frustrating, frustrating, frustrating the Bulldogs, especially Oulette, who was stopped on FSU's final shootout chance, giving U-M a 1-0 advantage and the second point on a night that ended 1-1 after overtime.

"All year we've been complaining about goals against and our goalies and I think it was pretty clear tonight that our goalie won us the game," said Berenson, who admitted he never saw a performance like this coming.

"You never know about kids, and that's what I keep learning. The other thing is to never give up on someone. The only thing I tell players when things aren't going well is, 'Never give up on yourself. Everyone else might be questioning you, but never give up on yourself.' And now tonight, Ferris threw everything they had - they needed to win that game and we thought we needed it - and that's [Racine's effort] what you got."

Three years ago, when Michigan faced a similar predicament, it turned to little-used Shawn Hunwick (out of necessity, with starter Bryan Hogan injured in the second-to-last game of the regular season) and Hunwick backstopped the Maize and Blue to six consecutive wins in the conference tournament, holding foes Lake Superior State, Michigan State, Miami and Northern Michigan to just nine total goals or 1.50 per game.

Now the Wolverines must repeat that run, and with Racine standing on his head, his confidence growing, they might not only be able to win six in a row but they might be expected to.

"I don't think anyone wants to play us right now," senior captain A.J. Treais said. "It's like playing in front of Shawn last year -- when you have confidence in your goalie you don't have to worry about who's in net or your responsibilities. You expect him to make the right saves and even steal a few.

"We've been struggling all year to find who's our ace and who's going to step up and be consistent. These past few weeks he's proven to the team that he can be a guy. If he keeps it up, we have a chance."

Berenson is quick to dismiss talk that Michigan, even as the seventh seed, might be the favorite, pointing to the Wolverines' 10-18-2 mark prior to the OSU series, but quietly he knows this team is capable of something special.

"I still think we're a team that has something to prove -- you can't forget about the 30 games we played before the last four -- but I like our team," he said. "I think we have a chance to be a team that moves forward.

"We have to go one series at a time. We know we have to play well at home and then play well on the road. Our goal is to get to Joe Louis to give ourselves a chance to make the Tournament."

With a hot goalie and a team playing its best hockey of the season, anything is possible. Even the impossible.

Michigan will host Northern Michigan in a best-of-three first-round series March 8-10. Game times have not been announced but tickets will go on sale Monday and can be purchased in-person at the U-M ticket office, by phone or at mgoblue.com.

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