March 21, 2010
Seeing the University Michigan in the NCAA Hockey Tournament is nothing new, it's a yearly tradition. The Wolverines have 20 straight invites to hockey's big dance, a streak that dates back to 1991; grunge hadn't exploded yet, Sidney Crosby(notes) was four years old, Gary Bettman was 23 months away from ruining our lives.
But Michigan as a Cinderella Team? Now that's uncharted territory.
The Wolverines stunned the college hockey world by taking the CCHA Tournament this weekend, capping a shocking run of six March Madness victories. The last two wins came at Joe Louis Arena: Michigan toppled heavily-favored Miami of Ohio on Friday, 5-2, then trimmed Northern Michigan Saturday, 2-1. The Wolverines needed all of these victories; without a CCHA title, they had zero chance of getting a tournament invite.
Cinderella Teams produce unlikely heroes and Michigan has one straight from central casting. Enter Shawn Hunwick, the back-up goalie without a scholarship, a pedigree, or a featured picture from the Associated Press (here's your Where's Waldo assignment: find him in the above photograph).
When starting netminder Bryan Hogan pulled a groin muscle against Notre Dame on Feb. 25, it didn't seem like a big deal. The Wolverines were a disappointing 19-16-1, on a road to nowhere. No one was foolish enough to suggest that this team had any chance to run the table in the CCHA tournament, no team had ever done that from a No. 7 seed. And certainly no one had any reason to expect that Hunwick, a practice goalie who had never made a start through almost three full seasons, could be passable in-between the pipes. It was no shock when a middling Notre Dame club pumped five goals past him in the regular-season finale.
Head coach Red Berenson prefers big goalies; Hunwick checks in at a mere 5-7, 163 pounds. Michigan has a recruiting pipeline that's been in place for decades; Hunwick is a walk-on player who was only extended a scholarship when someone backed out at the last minute in 2007. Berenson insists on picking a starting goalie and sticking with him; Hunwick was a career backup trying to stay ready for an opportunity unlikely to ever come. Being a practice goalie essentially means you're a human piece of plywood; help us in practice, then cheer for us during game day.
But when the CCHA Tournament started, a funny thing happened – the team started playing better and its green goaltender quickly started picking up confidence. The Wolverines dispatched of Lake Superior State in the first round (5-2, 6-0), then upset heavily-favored Michigan State in East Lansing (5-1, 5-3). There were plenty of heroes at play here - junior sniper Louie Caporusso refound his scoring touch after a disappointing couple of months, the defense was superb at clearing rebounds and limiting odd-man rushes – but you don't win playoff games at any level without reliable goaltending. Hunwick had gone from practice player to surprise star overnight.
"When you come together, it's not just the offense, it's not just the scorers, it's not just the power-play guys, it's not just the goalie, it's everybody," Berenson said after the MSU series.
An NCAA bid still looked like a longshot with Miami of Ohio waiting in the semifinals; the RedHawks were ranked No. 2 in the nation and had easily dispatched of the Wolverines twice in November, at Yost Arena no less. But Michigan was able to grind out a 2-1 lead through two periods before securing the issue with a three-goal blitz in the third. Cinderella had made it to the CCHA finals.
And to be honest, that was the end of the underdog talk for this Michigan team. Attendance doubled for Saturday's final – over 17,000 filled into Joe Louis Arena – and roughly 90 percent of the patrons were unabashedly pulling for the Maize and Blue. The Wildcats wanted to win the game, even as they had an NCAA ticket already punched; the Wolverines had to have it. Two Caporusso scores and 17 Hunwick saves highlighted Michigan's 2-1 victory but the final score is misleading, Michigan outshot Northern by a 35-18 margin and carried play throughout. Next stop, Ft. Wayne, Indiana, where Bemidji State awaits (Saturday, 7:30 pm eastern).
Caporusso's hot stick (7-4-11 over his last six games) had a lot to do with the playoff run, but the Tournament MVP was slam-dunk – Hunwick (1.86 GAA) gets the hardware. And success hasn't gone to the kid's head; Michigan has a long list of star netminders from its glorious history (Marty Turco(notes), Al Montoya(notes), Steve Shields, among others) but Hunwick isn't putting himself in their company. "Let's be honest," Hunwick told AnnArbor.com. "I'm not on their level at all. I don't even know if I'm on Bryan Hogan's level. Those guys are unbelievable goalies."
Modesty always sounds nice, but give credit where it's due. For the last three weeks, Shawn Hunwick, you've been pretty unbelievable, too.