ST. PAUL, MN - APRIL 07: Shawn Hunwick #31 of the Michigan Wolverines stops a shot by the North Dakota Fighting Sioux during semifinals of the 2011 NCAA Men's Frozen Four on April 7, 2011 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
When the buzzer sounded, he didn't do anything. Turning towards his net Shawn Hunwick raised his mask to the top of his forehead, like he'd done for every stoppage in play since the game began two and half hours earlier, and reached for his water bottle. There was nothing anxious or descript about his movements, or even the slightest expression on his face as he squirted water into his mouth and then placed the water bottle back on the top of the net where he found it. Then he turned to face the mob of teammates that were ecstatically skating toward him.
Then, and only then, did a smile finally crease his face.
It's always the guy you least expect that does it. Someone you never thought of. The guy who wasn't highly recruited and wasn't drafted. That's the guy that steals the game.
During last season's improbable run from the bottom to the 2010 NCAA Tournament, we got to know Shawn Hunwick. He was short. Really short. His cherub-like face and diminutive stature seemed so out of place at a position now dominated by men six feet and over. The only person without any doubts it seemed was Hunwick. Stepping into the role of "Starting Goalie for the University of Michigan" the former walk-on showed no sense of emotion or fear, and promptly led the Wolverines on a winning streak that brought them to within a disallowed overtime goal of the Frozen Four.
Even then, we weren't sure what we had. He was still too small. Too squirrelly. Too... something. He didn't fit the mold that we'd become so used to. So, naturally, we assumed his bigger, highly recruited, drafted cohort Bryan Hogan would retake the crease the following season. It made sense. It wasn't that we doubted the guile and skill Hunwick possessed, it was that something told us we shouldn't believe what we saw. The run Michigan made was wonderful, but it couldn't last. We got lucky, to an extent, so let's not press our luck. As Michigan stole game after game we couldn't believe it was the cherub-faced kid that was doing it. It's always the guy you least expect.
Thursday night was larceny on a grand scale. Hunwick faced 40 shots last night, with 15 of them coming in the final period, while Michigan managed only 18 for the game. Unlike previous games, Hunwick faced as many quality shots as he did harmless point shots. The Sioux swarmed the net, taking a page from Western Michigan, and created as many screens and traffic as the could to try to get to the Wolverines' netminder. While Michigan did its best to keep the North Dakota offense to the outside, eventually, inevitably they broke through leaving Hunwick as the last line of defense. Shooting high and hard, the North Dakota forwards sought to take advantage of Hunwick's size. He's short. He plays low to the ice. They'll be room upstairs. He won't be able to get there, he's not big enough or quick enough.
Only he was.
At the outset of the game, Michigan and North Dakota seemed fairly well matched. While North Dakota seemed to possess a slight skill advantage, it was clear that the Wolverines could negate their skill with disciplined defensive play and speed. And midway through the first period it paid off. Finding a loose puck just inside the blueline, John Merrill let a wristshot go that clanged off the post. With the second line on the ice, crashing the net, North Dakota goalie Aaron Dell never saw the shot until it bounced back in front of him as Luke Glendenning and Ben Winnett were creating havoc for North Dakota's top line. The puck found the crashing Winnett as Glendenning tied up his man, and a quick shot from Winnett bounced off the screening players. The bouncing puck again found Winnett, and skating left to right, the senior calmly out waited the sprawling Dell, and fired the puck into the net over Dell's prone body. Michigan was suddenly winning a game few predicted they'd be in. Michigan and North Dakota exchanged chances as the period came to a close, but the game felt even and competitive. But once the second period began, that illusion was shattered.
The ice quickly tilted in North Dakota's favor. The Sioux held Michigan to a paltry three shots in the second period while hurling 11 on net and at least a half dozen more high or wide. Despite a parade to the penalty box in the first period, the referees basically stowed their whistles for the remainder of the game, calling only three penalties in the second and third periods, total. Penalties weren't to blame for the shift in the ice, it was North Dakota's size and skill. The Sioux won most of the one on one battles in the corners. They had men in the right spots to intercept clearing passes. They were bigger and faster from the second period on.
It didn't matter. While Michigan was out skilled at times, they weren't out-positioned. The Sioux would win a one on one battle, yet turn or pivot into another Wolverine who was positioned to greet him with a stick or check. The Wolverines aggressively pressured North Dakota's point men, keeping them in check and forcing them into wide shots or harmless dump downs. If memory serves I can only count three occasions where the Sioux were able to take anything more than a wrist shot from the point. The Wolverines played a disciplined hockey game that has so often eluded them in situations like this. It was amazing and heart stopping to watch.
Part of that was the simple fact that North Dakota was just too good to be bottled up for the entire game. Eventually, they got through, and Hunwick was waiting. Playing his angles perfectly, Hunwick was the perfect aggressive goaltender. On the rush he came out just above the crease, and allowed his angles and quick feet to cut off any angle to shoot. He used his defensemen perfectly, allowing them to force the Sioux wide to the point that even if they did manage to cut across, there was little room for them to maneuver. His stick was quick and his pad level was nearly flawless. Perhaps most importantly, when Hunwick went down in a full or half butterfly, he stood tall. There was no sag in his form, no tilt back. He was rigid and angled toward the shooters with his weight forward. This allowed him to dig and slide side to side so quickly, shuffling his pads and stick in a amazingly quick pushoffs and recoveries.
You could begin to see the frustration in the Sioux. Their shots started getting higher and quicker in the possession. They seemed to rifle their shots without looking or assessing their position. All they knew was they had to get the puck on net. Get it on net. Get it on net NOW. That played right into Hunwick's pads. On his angles and at the top of the crease, there was little for the Sioux to actually shoot at. As more and more shots bounced harmlessly to the corners or bounced off a shot block by the Wolverines, the Sioux started to get more desperate. Their passes became to pretty as they tried the impossible pass for the open man. Their shots got wider and higher. They saw the clock ticking down and they over committed, leaving the puck in Carl Hagelin's path.
The Senior took the puck with under a minute to go below his own blue line with a Sioux defender draped on him like a cloak. Pushing through and past the blue line, Hagelin back handed a pass to fellow senior Louie Caporusso as the Swedish born forward was check to the ice. Caporusso, in mid flight, accepted the pass softly and took a stride toward the middle of the ice, drawing the right side defender to him and then softly sent another backhand pass to the trailing Scooter Vaughn, who, left all alone, surely deposited the puck into the Sioux's open net. And the Michigan bench erupted.
Hunwick, however, turned his back to the ice and grabbed his water bottle, washing off the sweat that surely caked his face and quenching his thirst as the Wolverines celebrated in the corner. Nothing to see here. Just a man doing his job. The clock still shows time.
And then it was over. As Michigan mobbed it's goaltender Luke Moffatt slid toward the goal line, fists pumping in the air, signifying the elation at the heist they had just pulled. But Hunwick simply slid his mask down back over his face, lest you see the visage of the man that just robbed North Dakota's season. He wasn't supposed to be there. He wasn't supposed to be that good. He made you think you could beat him. And yet, he was the mastermind all along.
It's always the ones you least expect. They're the ones that get you.