After 12 games a year ago, Michigan was 5-6-1, foreshadowing the program's worst season in 25 years. Today, as the Wolverines travel to Ohio State (7pm, Fox Sports Detroit), they are 9-2-1 and ranked third nationally. Much has changed, but nothing more important than the play of U-M's goalies.
The 2012-13 preseason was a mess for then-freshmen Steve Racine and Jared Rutledge. Racine missed much of the summer while recovering from injury while Rutledge was held out of the first two weeks of practice after undergoing eye surgery. When he returned to start the first game of the year, Oct. 11 vs. RIT, Rutledge had barely practiced with the Maize and Blue.
The results were disastrous. The rookie netminder allowed five goals on 26 shots, including four goals on just 10 shots in the third period and overtime. Michigan lost 5-4, and the team immediately lost confidence in its goalie.
Racine, also a freshman, didn't fare much better; over the first 12 games, with Racine starting eight times and Rutledge four, the Maize and Blue had a 3.33 goals against average and an .880 save percentage (anything less than .900 is considered poor while .910 is about average and .920 or higher is deemed outstanding).
"The bad goals we were giving up created a lot of confidence issues," head coach Red Berenson said. "We started off scoring in our first 10 games. We were scoring plenty but we were giving up plenty more."
Down the stretch, a team with significant chemistry issues came together, a backs-against-the-wall urgency overtaking them. Racine took the job away from Rutledge for good, and the Wolverines went 8-1-1 in their final 10, advancing to the CCHA finals. Had they beat Notre Dame, the Maize and Blue would have qualified for the NCAA Tournament for a 23rd consecutive season.
They lost 3-1 but found something.
"We had grown close as a team at the end of last season and we tried to carry that over into this year," senior alternate captain Derek DeBlois said. "We've done numerous things as a team over the summer and this year, and I think that goes a long way."
Chemistry did improve and has remained a tenet of this year's team, but Racine also emerged a bona-fide No. 1, and in the early going this season, he continued to rise up, positing a 2-0-1 mark with a 2.00 goals against average and a .931 save percentage.
A groin injury sidelined him for five games, and in that moment, everything could have fallen apart. Instead, rookie Zach Nagelvoort stepped in and stepped up, and he has effectively taken away the starting job from Racine, recording a 6-2-0 mark with a 1.65 GAA and a .945 save percentage.
Regardless of who's in net, though, the difference from last year to this year has been, as the old cliché goes, night and day.
"Our goaltending has been huge," DeBlois said. "Both guys have been phenomenal.
"We're in the top five nationally in goals against average and Red always preaches that the team with the fewest goals against will win our league, and that was true our freshman year."
"It helps with your team confidence when they're playing well because you know if you make a mistake it won't end up in the back of the net," junior forward Alex Guptill added.
Berenson wouldn't say that the team defense is better than last year, the team does take pride in its defense, and its goalies are making both the routine and difficult saves.
Leadership has also been key. More so than any of the other three major sports, hockey teams seem to be a reflection of their captains, and in senior defenseman Mac Bennett (he wears the 'C'), DeBlois and sophomore centerman Andrew Copp, U-M features three unassuming yet extremely hardworking players.
"I think the leadership in that locker room is excellent, like I thought it would be," Berenson said.
Last year, the Wolverines had too many cliques and there was a group of players (that shall go unnamed) that were real goof-offs and had a negative impact on the locker room. Some of those players are no longer with the team and the others have been reined in with stronger leadership at the top.
"You'd have to talk to the seniors because they've been through it with different teams, but the feedback I've received is they think they had better chemistry right from the get-go," Berenson said.
It helps that Bennett plays a gritty, intelligent, workmanlike game despite being the biggest "superstar" on the team. And that DeBlois and Copp are very much similar players.
Copp was considered a defensive forward when he was signed, one that may center a third or fourth line, but has since transformed himself into the team's best offensive performer, ranking first on the team in goals (eight) and points (13), and for good measure, game-winning goals (three). He plays with a chip on his shoulder, though, and sets the tone for the Wolverines' forwards with his intensity and commitment to a two-way game.
The freshmen have also played an important role, with forwards J.T. Compher (12 points) and Tyler Motte (five goals and 10 points), and defensemen Michael Downing and Nolan De Jong (plus Nagelvoort) all strong contributors. With five more rookie teammates, the freshmen were going to make a significant impact, one way or another.
"Every day these young kids come to the rink and can't wait, and that enthusiasm is contagious on the team," Berenson said.
So much is working for the Wolverines this season that the players should have every reason to think big, as in a Big Ten title. Then an NCAA berth, and quite possibly more than that. Like in 2008 and 2011, the chemistry is terrific, the goaltending solid, and the leadership topnotch. And that's why Michigan is Michigan again.