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March 4, 2013

Three questions: Will the Wolverines' turnaround last?

The Michigan hockey team bested Ferris State over the weekend, is unbeaten in its last four for the first time all year, is 5-2-1 in its last eight, and will host Northern Michigan in a first-round playoff series beginning Friday. What's changed? We discuss in today's three questions.

How have the Wolverines turned things around and will it last?

It would be convenient if we could point to special teams, but Michigan's 3 for 18 showing over the past four games, for a success rate of 16.7 percent, is not better than its 16.7 mark during the entire season. U-M's penalty killing of 89.5 percent is improved over its 83.3 season percent rate, but not significantly enough to be the lone explanation.

The truth is the Wolverines are skating with greater urgency and with greater confidence, and it has helped tremendously that their goalie, freshman Steve Racine, has suddenly become a bona-fide obstacle to pucks ending up in the back of the net. Consider that as U-M limped to a 10-18-2 mark in its first 30 games, its goalies stopped just 87.3 percent of the shots they faced. In the past four games, Racine has a save percentage of .926.

But giving Racine credit alone does not do justice to the effort the entirety of the Maize and Blue have made. Michigan's defensemen are playing grittier and have been smarter with the puck. U-M's forwards have been stronger in their own zone, picking up the extra attackers that had so often gone unguarded in previous contests.

On Friday, like it had been against Ohio State in a sweep of the Buckeyes Feb. 22-23, Michigan was the better team, displaying every intangible needed to be successful. On Saturday, however, the Maize and Blue faltered some, putting Racine in dire situations. Time and again, though, he kept the Bulldogs at bay, stealing a game U-M probably should have lost.

As for whether they can keep this up … senior captain A.J. Treais surmised it perfectly following Michigan's shootout victory Saturday - if the Wolverines play like they did Friday, treating every shift like it's their last and giving Racine the help he needs, they really could win six CCHA playoff games and go to the NCAA Tournament. If they ask Racine to bail them out again, like they did Saturday, their season will end prematurely.

The good news is that Racine has now proven he can do it, and that will do wonders for his confidence and that of his team's. But that's a dangerous slope to become overreliant on him, and the Maize and Blue know it.

They're feeling good, playing closer to the type of playoff hockey necessary to be successful - the type of Michigan hockey that had been missing around these parts for five months - and they have what it takes to keep it up and beat Northern Michigan. Against Notre Dame or Western Michigan in a quarterfinal round? That will depend entirely on whether U-M puts it together for back-to-back games against NMU first.

How does Steve Racine's emergence impact the recruiting of another goalie for next season?

Simply put, Racine was awesome on Saturday. He stopped breakaways (two) and three shootout attempts. He stoned Ferris State on multiple point-blank one-timers. He thrashed around the crease to deny rebound after rebound, at one point in the third period throwing his limbs in every direction during a mad scramble.

He didn't at all resemble the goalie that was 4-5-2 with a .880 save percentage through Jan. 11. And that was the last time he played, in a 5-4 loss to Alaska, before resuming the starting job Feb. 22 against Ohio State - a span of 42 days between appearances. Racine said he used that time to improve his practice habits while he began to realize he had taken his early-season opportunity for granted and would do so no more.

He's making good on that promise, providing the championship-level goalie play that Michigan could ride to CCHA playoff series wins over Northern Michigan and (then likely) Notre Dame.

Racine has shown enough recently that concerns U-M was doomed next season to repeat this year's misery without an upgrade in net should be allayed. Yes, it will be much harder to keep up this kind of performance over an entire year, but that is the maturation of any athlete. At the very least, the rookie can be a solid backup for the Maize and Blue going forward, and compete for the starting gig.

Don't expect Michigan to give up its hunt for a goalie recruit, though. The Wolverines have their eyes on a few netminders, believing they need a backstop capable of competing at a high level consistently. Perhaps that is Racine in the end, but competition can only aid that progress.

Is Michigan the favorite to win the CCHA Tournament?

A prominent reporter that covers the league seemed to be picking the Maize and Blue after Saturday's shootout win over Ferris, but it's not a done deal. Michigan probably has more momentum than anyone else - U-M's .688 winning percentage since Feb. 1 is second only to Miami (.700) and Michigan is one of only two CCHA teams unbeaten in its last four games - but in the playoffs momentum is created anew, and the Wolverines have to re-establish it.

If they do move past the Wildcats this weekend, the Maize and Blue will have to go on the road, to Notre Dame if all three higher seeds win this weekend, and would face an Irish team that is unbeaten in its last five (3-0-2) and is 4-0 against Michigan this year, winning by a combined score of 20-10.

After that, U-M would either have to go through Miami (1-1 vs. the Redhawks this year) and Western Michigan (1-3 against the Broncos) or beat a team equally as hot and also eyeing the NCAA Tournament.

In other words, we're a long ways from a 23rd consecutive NCAA appearance. However, this team is putting it together at exactly the right time, and if you wanted one team to bet on in the postseason, they're a good one to choose.


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