If you tuned into any of the five and a half hours of hockey coverage on ESPN2 Thursday night, you were treated to some exciting hockey.
The University of Minnesota Duluth topped Notre Dame in a bit of an ugly affair with a few soft goals and loads of penalties. It wasn’t a pretty game, but the end-to-end action and Notre Dame making it close late made for pretty exciting television. While the goaltending wasn’t spot on in UMD’s 4-3 win, the skill players put on a pretty good display.
The shocker came in the nightcap with the Michigan Wolverines shutting out North Dakota, 2-0. It was clear that North Dakota was the faster, stronger, more skilled team. However, it was Michigan’s Shawn Hunwick who stole the show and stole the game from the Fighting Sioux.
Coming up after the jump, a look at what I enjoyed most about Thursday night’s Frozen Four action.
All caps, so you know I’m serious. I am not surprised that Shawn Hunwick had the game that he had. He’s been in big-game situations and exceeded expectations before. That’s not the surprising thing.
What is surprising, and maybe even a little inspiring, is that Hunwick’s Michigan career is almost a miracle in itself. Consider the fact that he is a 5-foot-7 goaltender with really no prior credentials coming into Michigan.
Hunwick was a goaltender for the North American Hockey League’s Alpena Ice Diggers, a Tier II Junior A club. He put up respectable numbers against fairly average competition. Michigan, in need of a goalie, had him walk on. He played 2:52 as a freshman… that’s it. Didn’t play a second as a sophomore.
Then last year, he got his shot. Bryan Hogan went down with an injury and Hunwick stepped right in. Even Michigan players have admitted they were nervous with him between the pipes in the big games. He was fairly unproven, after all. If the staff had another option, they probably would have gone with the other guy. Still, Hunwick came in and played great and was named the CCHA Tournament MVP.
Fast-forward to this season. Hunwick started 34 games, earned a shutout in the Big Chill at the Big House, played in hugely important games. Wolverines fans were still nervous with a 5-foot-7 goalie, though.
Also, consider the fact that Jack Campbell was previously committed to Michigan before he ended up signing in Windsor. If Campbell ended up going to Michigan, we wouldn’t even be talking about Hunwick, as the first-rounder out of the NTDP would have likely played every meaningful game for the Wolverines.
The odds were stacked against Shawn Hunwick from the very beginning. However, with perseverance, a little bit of luck and a whole lot of patience, he became a Frozen Four hero by shutting out the best team in the country. Now he’s one win away from a storybook ending.
UMD Power Play
In my Minnesota Duluth preview, I mentioned that if you had ever seen the Bulldogs’ power play, you’d know why they’re so fun to watch. Well… they went 3-for-6 on the PP against Notre Dame.
I don’t know if there’s a power-play unit in the country that moves the puck as well as UMD’s top line. A big reason they move so well is because of the space created down low out of respect for Justin Faulk’s bomb from the point. I’ll get to more on that in a little bit.
The way these guys just find each other is breathtaking. Jack Connolly’s power-play goal in which J.T. Brown passed it through Mike Connolly (who basically served as a “decoy”) right on the tape for Jack was a “WOW” moment. It was also the game-winning goal.
If Michigan finds itself in penalty trouble, the Wolverines are going to have issues Saturday.
If you’re a Carolina Hurricanes fan, I hope you were watching Minnesota Duluth. I think Faulk solidified himself as the best pro prospect playing in the Frozen Four with his three-assist effort.
As I mentioned, a big reason UMD’s power play works so well is because of the threat Faulk provides from the top of the point. Teams don’t want him to unleash his accurate and heavy shot without someone in his face. Due to that, there’s more room down low and on the half walls for the Connollys, Brown and Fontaine.
The other thing about Faulk, as friend of the blog Corey Pronman pointed out, is that he doesn’t shoot if he doesn’t have a lane and is far more than an offense-only defenseman. I think that’s why he’s probably the best pro prospect playing.
Many offensive defensemen will take risks with their shot from the point or try and force it. Not Faulk. If it’s not there, he knows he can dish it off to any one of his capable teammates. That’s such a good quality to have in an offensive-minded defenseman.
Pronman also added the following in a response to me on Twitter:
That’s pretty high praise, and I think pretty accurate as well. Again, he might score 50 or more points, but he’s not going to be a defensive liability. Is he going to take chances? Yes. Is he going to forget he’s a defenseman? Never.
I believe Saturday night will be Faulk’s last game in a Bulldogs uniform, as Carolina should really consider having him signed by Sunday morning.
I hate the word moxie. I don’t know why I used it. Probably because it starts with an M. Anyways… The Wolverines played with some stones yesterday. North Dakota tried to hit them right out of the building to start the game and it just didn’t work. They didn’t get knocked off their game a bit.
Despite very few chances on net, Michigan made the most of it’s best chance of the game on Ben Winnett’s goal. That’s what you have to do when you’re playing championship hockey. It doesn’t have to be pretty, you just have to score more than the other team. That’s what the Wolverines did.
Also, give credit to Winnett for staying with a broken play to score Michgan’s first goal. After Jon Merrill clanked the crossbar, the puck kind of fumbled around the slot before Winnett, who actually first whiffed on a rebound, was able to get the puck to his stick and send a high, hard one to the middle of the open goal.
Despite the onslaught from North Dakota, Michigan continually weathered the storm. Hunwick saved their bacon a few times, but overall, the Wolverines were able to slow the high-powered offense of North Dakota.
They’ve got another elite offensive club to take on in the final. With the added confidence of taking down the top seed remaining, the Wolverines cannot be taken lightly.
Eulogizing the Fallen
North Dakota played a great game. They just didn’t score. Can’t win if you don’t score goals. (How do you like that analysis?) To be honest, it felt like, for much of the third period, there was literally nothing the Sioux could do that would have helped them win. Hunwick was just too good. It just looked like fate was not on North Dakota’s side.
The Sioux had a very good team this year and it’s a shame for their senior class, that stayed together through thick and thin, won’t have a shot at the title. They were sure they’d win and it didn’t work out. That’s a tough pill to swallow.
Bright side for Sioux Fans: North Dakota has one of the top recruiting classes in the country for 2011-12. The Sioux have two really exciting players to watch in Rocco Grimaldi and J.T. Miller coming to Grand Forks. They’re one of those teams who don’t recruit, they reload.
Notre Dame ran into a lot of penalty trouble. I would have liked to see the refs let them play a little bit more, but I can’t fault them for calling actual penalties. It’s not like they were phantom calls. Still, the Irish never quit and kept it close. They had a few great chances at the end, but it wasn’t meant to be for Jeff Jackson’s bunch.
Notre Dame has some very nice pieces going into next season and should bounce back well. The Irish have a few good recruits in the pipeline and with their freshman class as strong as it is, they will be a top team for years to come.
Real quick note: If T.J. Tynan doesn’t get drafted in June, there’s a problem. He’s small, but his skating looked like it’s vastly improved. He even looked faster than he did from the regionals. His offensive abilities are there and I think his skating will only get better. I don’t even think he’s a late-round stab anymore, someone should take him in the late-mid rounds. Draft him now before he can make a killing as a college free agent, NHL.
A Look Ahead
Minnesota Duluth and Michigan seem almost too close to call. I don’t like making predictions, so I won’t. I really like this match up though.
The Bulldogs have that high-powered offense and I think Kenny Reiter is a better goalie than what we saw in the Notre Dame game. He played well overall, but some of those ND goals were softies. The forward corps for this UMD squad is dangerous and I think they’ll be tough to contain.
The Wolverines cannot match UMD offensively. However, it’s D is solid and we all saw how good Hunwick can be. They’ll need another effort from their little goaltender like the one we saw Thursday. Additionally, Carl Hagelin and Louie Caporusso are going to have to step up in leading the Michigan charge offensively. The blue line is going to have to play very smart, as UMD will kill them on mistakes.
I think we’re in for an absolute thriller of a hockey game. UMD is in search of its first national title, while Michigan looks to add a 10th to its storied history. I love the way they match up as far as giving us an entertaining game. Saturday night is going to be a great night for college hockey. Strap in, folks.
Minnesota Duluth vs. Michigan — 7 p.m. EDT — ESPN
Coming up later this afternoon, more info on the IIHF World Under-18 Championship. Stay tuned!