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NCAA Frozen Four: Shawn Hunwick just played the game of his life

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In which we recap the day's events in the NCAA tournament.

For 60 solid minutes, North Dakota out-everythinged Michigan, but the Fighting Sioux are now headed back to Grand Forks for one reason.

Shawn Hunwick just played the game of his life.

Now, don't go scrambling to see if your favorite NHL team drafted the senior netminder, who made 40 saves in Michigan's stunning 2-0 NCAA semifinal victory over the heavily-favored Sioux.

They didn't.

No one did. And in fact, he wasn't even a sure thing at Michigan. He didn't take full control of the No. 1 starter's job until around January of last year, instead splitting time with Bryan Hogan. Prior to this season, he'd gotten into a grand total of 12 games at Michigan over the previous three years. Before that, he was a mediocre goalie for a team in the largely unknown NAHL, playing for something called the Alpena IceDiggers.

And yet here he is now, the undersized goaltending younger brother of Colorado Avalanche defenseman Matt Hunwick, and unquestionable hero to college hockey fans all over the country who wanted Goliath slain.

Early on, it looked as though Hunwick and the Wolverines would drown in a flood of Grade-A opportunities that NoDak produces with distressing frequency, as the bigger, stronger, faster, skillsier Sioux dictated pace and tone from the outset.

This was especially evident in the general unfriendliness of the opening 20 minutes. The Sioux seemed to take a sort of sadistic glee in dumping the puck in on transitions just so they could keep hitting the Wolverines, and one began to feel bad for whichever defenseman pulled the ignominious task of going back behind his own goal line to retrieve it. Every time, without fail, that guy got absolutely clobbered.

And when the Wolverines tried to match that physical play, they got too aggressive, creating power play opportunities they shouldn't have been suckered into. But despite the 14-shot barrage and a domineering performance from North Dakota's superstar top line of Evan Trupp, Brad Malone and Hobey Baker candidate Matt Frattin, Hunwick inexplicably kept the puck from getting past him.

Part of the Sioux's problem was that it was having trouble finding the net, of course. Despite 40 shots on goal in the game, another 14 went wide, many of them on clean looks that had no excuse not to be on net. But Hunwick also made two absolute game-saving stops.

The first came midway through the first when the puck somehow came right to Frattin, a Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick who had 30 points in his last 16 games, with acres of space and nothing separating him from his 36th goal but a guy rather generously listed at 5-foot-7 and 166 pounds. But Hunwick got a piece of the shot, which had been so lethal in games past, and it ricocheted harmlessly to the glass behind him.

A short time later, Michigan went up 1-0 after a shot rang crazily off the post, bounced around in front of the net for a brief moment and was deposited behind Aaron Dell by Ben Winnett, another Leafs pick.

But the most important save of the game came much later, as Malone, an Avs prospect, broke into the zone, bulldozed past his man and broke for the net from below the right circle early in the third. Here Hunwick made the biggest gamble of the game, opting to attempt a pokecheck as Malone tried to cut to his backhand.

This could have been disastrous, as lunging like that, especially for a guy so small, exposed a whole hell of a lot of net for a player like Malone to exploit. But his timing was perfect, the puck skidded harmlessly off Malone's stick, and the Sioux never again had a chance that good.

This is all important, obviously, because it pushes Michigan through to a now wide-open NCAA final on Saturday. But also because North Dakota hadn't been shut out, or even put in danger of it, since Nov. 20. In the 29 games between that night and the Frozen Four, the Sioux had outscored opponents by a gaudy 144-52.

But any ol' night, a goalie can steal a game, which is just what Shawn Hunwick did.

Not bad for a kid whose official Michigan bio says, "Sophomore (2008-09) - Did not see game action."

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Minnesota-Duluth 4, Notre Dame 3

When played at even strength this game was fairly close with a slight edge going to Minnesota-Duluth. When played at special teams, the chasm separating these two teams put the Grand Canyon to shame.

The game started off in absolutely bananas fashion, with Notre Dame opening the scoring just 49 seconds in, then exchanging another three goals over the next 10:04 before Duluth went up for good at 13:31 on a power play goal from Mike Connolly.

It was often difficult to tell whether the Minnesota-Duluth power play was moving the puck at breakneck speeds because it was so good, or because Notre Dame was working on a stunningly realistic performance art tribute to the Terracotta Army.  The Bulldogs pumped three power play goals past poor Mike Johnson, who had to be stunned at the lack of support his team gave him, just two weeks after he singlehandedly carried them to St. Paul.

His Duluth-based counterpart, Kenny Reiter, had the opposite problem. While the team in front of him played stunning team defense — particularly on the penalty kill — he made a sincere and commendable effort to keep it close, allowing three soft goals but getting the W in spite of himself.

It's almost difficult to believe that final shots were 34-21 in Notre Dame's favor, because it seemed like every Duluth chance was of extraordinary quality, while I'm not sure I could come up with a good one for the Irish.

The offensive stars of the day, if you want to call them that, were Duluth's Justin Fontaine and Justin Faulk (a Carolina Hurricanes prospect who will almost certainly jump to the pros this summer). Each had three assists. The most notable contribution to the game from a Notre Dame player came from Detroit Red Wings draft pick Riley Sheahan, who took three penalties, the last of which led to Jack Connolly's game-winning goal.

Three Stars

1. Shawn Hunwick, Michigan

See above. He was spectacular in every way.

2. Justin Faulk, Duluth

Three assists from the blue line and wasn't on the ice for a single Notre Dame goal. This kid is pro-ready as a freshman and makes the UMD power play hum.

3. Jon Merrill, Michigan

It was his shot off the post that Winnett corralled and stuffed into the goal, and the New Jersey Devils second-rounder was immense in his own end as well. While many Michigan players seemed rather unsure of themselves in the defensive zone, Merrill was a rock, blocked a number of shots and lent some amount of sanity to what could have been an even more hectic day at the rink for Hunwick.

Ryan Lambert covers the NCAA hockey tournament for Puck Daddy. You can e-mail him here if you want, but you should definitely follow him on Twitter.

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