This is how it feels to have the goalie that makes opposing fans do...well...that.
Sioux fans are going to think about this game--this season--for the next decade as the one that got away. This is going to be their 1997. The year their team was near unbeatable during the year, actually unbeatable for the 2 1/2 months heading into the tournament, and that damn tiny walk-on goalie slammed the door on them. They're going to be the ones talking in their sleep, saying "F*** Michigan. All they've got is a goalie" the way a friend of mine did about the Spartans after a loss to the Miller-era squad.
North Dakota is an unbelievable hockey team. That was an onslaught for the last forty minutes of the game. After a pretty even first period, especially considering the Sioux had a pair of power plays, North Dakota just absolutely dominated the second and third periods, outshooting Michigan 26-10 down the stretch.
It's so cliche, but this was a true team victory. It sounds funny to say in a game where Michigan got outshot 40-20, but the defense was pretty darn good. Hunwick had to make 7 or 8 dandies, and you would clearly put this in the category of the goaltender stealing a game, but the sticks were active, guys back-checked like crazy and for the most part they kept the Sioux from getting those second and third chances with everyone running around. They played a really darn good game against a team with unbelievable depth. Guys like Carl Hagelin and Louie Caporusso didn't do much in the offensive end, but they were earning their scholarships in their own end of the ice. Matt Rust was a beast. That was one of the only things that Barry Melrose got right the entire night.
And leave it to maybe the most under-appreciated player on the team to score the game-winning goal. Ben Winnett. Gotta admit, never been a fan. Probably get down on him more than I ought to. But despite the fact that he never turned into the scoring threat offensively that we all kind of expected with him coming out of the BCHL and all, he has turned into a really strong defensive player--and he probably doesn't get enough credit for that. Tonight he's one of the heroes. Jon Merrill's shot from the point hit the post and came back out to Winnett. The puck hopped over his stick--I'll admit, I groaned--but it caromed around and Winnett corralled it to the goalie's left. He had nothing but the net to shoot at and he buried it.
Amazingly, that was all Michigan needed. In the middle of the second period, I was thinking that they really needed to turn the tables a little bit because there's no way that could keep up for another 30 minutes, but it did. North Dakota threw everything they had at Michigan and #31 just kept stopping them. The defense kept dumping it out and getting off the ice when they could. It's hard to describe how exhausting this game was to watch. It was like 40 minutes of watching CC's power play. The teams could have switched ends halfway through the third period and North Dakota would have had a clean sheet of ice to work with.
But then it was Carl Hagelin blocking a shot, Michigan rushing the puck up ice and making the extra pass, Scooter Vaughan popping it into the empty net, and we're playing Saturday night for the National freaking CHAMPIONSHIP!
The opponent? Minnesota-Duluth, who defeated Notre Dame 4-3 earlier today. More on them tomorrow.
Michigan's defense was at its absolute best during the four North Dakota power plays that resulted in just five shots on goal. No single power play had more than two shots in the two minutes. On the power play that I really thought was going to do us in--when Michigan was called for too many men on the ice--they clamped down and held the Sioux to one shot on goal. The two power plays early in the game resulted in just three shots. Amazingly, the Sioux offense was probably better when they weren't up a man.
Hunwick stole the show, though. He just barely got a glove on a shot from Matt Frattin from the circles after an awful giveaway, but it was enough to knock it wide. He bailed out Treais after another blind pass to the middle of the ice went awry. He went post-to-post to stop Gregoire after he got in around the defense. He stoned Genoway on what was a great scoring chance. The "Pony Express" line put an unreal twenty shots on goal and Hunwick turned away all of them. Despite all the shots, they ended up with no points and were a combined -6 on the night.
This was a team that hadn't scored fewer than three goals in a game in 2 1/2 months. And despite Gary Thorne using the s-word a good five times in the first minute of the third period, they didn't put a single puck past Hunwick. Not bad for the fourth-best goaltender in the CCHA. Scooter Vaughan called him the best goalie in the nation and it's hard to argue at this point. He's kind of going John Curry on everybody.
I figured if the Wolverines were to win, Hunwick would need to be the best player on the ice and it'd have to be a low scoring game. I wasn't counting on a performance like that, however. After being a run-and-gun team for so much of the last decade, it's really impressive to see Michigan completely transform into a defense-first team who is just doing what it takes to win hockey games. And it's nice to finally be on the right-end of one of these performances.
The complete sweep of the WCHA is in play. Time for a road trip to hopefully see the Wolverines bring home National Championship #10.