Michigan's little goalie must come up big in Frozen Four finale

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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- When Michigan's goalie Shawn Hunwick stands tall, it's more of a figurative statement. At "5-6-ish," as he concedes, the senior might be lucky to reach the top shelf of his locker stall without a lift. But nothing reached the top shelf of his net on Thursday night as Hunwick shut out North Dakota, the nation's top team, 2-0, in the Frozen Four semifinal game at the Xcel Energy Center.

In front of the Fighting Sioux-dominated, sell-out crowd, Hunwick turned aside-- often spectacularly -- 40 shots by a team that boasted the country's second-ranked offense (4.05 goals per game). North Dakota's leading scorer, Matt Frattin, led the nation with 36 goals. There was little question going into the game that the Sioux had the more talented, skilled team in the tournament. Michigan's longtime coach, Red Berenson, even conceded the point on the eve of the game: "We know they are a better team, but we are going to come and play hard."

It would take a divine performance by the Wolverines to shut down the Sioux's top line, which had combined for 69 goals this season, and get a puck behind goalie Aaron Dell, who had allowed just one goal during North Dakota's road to the Frozen Four. But Michigan's grinding third line, with center Matt Rust between Luke Glendening and Ben Winnett, kept North Dakota's top players in check.

"When I noticed they were changing the lines every time our line got out there, I knew we must be doing something right," Rust said. Not only did they silence Frattin and his linemates, they outscored them. Midway through the first period, Winnett found a way, driving to the net, whipping a rebound into the net. Amazingly, the score would hold up for the next 45 minutes, thanks, of course, to a certain pint-sized netminder.

It was an against-all-odds kind of game, and isn't that appropriate for an against-all-odds player like Hunwick? It was just four years ago that the Sterling Heights, MI, native had all but put his hopes of playing Division I hockey to rest. A series of concussions in juniors had forced him to take a step back, but when the Wolverines needed a third-string goalie, Hunwick -- whose brother Matt (currently a defenseman for the Colorado Avalanche) had captained Michigan in 2006-07 -- walked onto the team, seemingly happy just to be included.

In his first two seasons at Michigan, Hunwick saw the ice for all of 2:52, barely two shifts worth of hockey. So he supplemented his ice time on his own, staying after every practice to face extra shots and continue working on his game. "[And] that's literally the last thing a goalie would want to do, to take more shots after you're dead tired after practice," center Matt Rust says. "But it's a testament to his character."

Nothing was ever promised to Hunwick -- not ice time, certainly not a starter's job -- but hope and possibility were enough. And when the opportunity finally came in the middle of last season, he embraced it, eventually winning a starting role and now taking his team to within one win of the pinnacle of college hockey.

The Wolverines, though, will first have to get through Minnesota-Duluth, who defeated Notre Dame, 4-3, in the first semifinal on Thursday by putting on a power play clinic early in the game. Converting on their first three man advantage opportunities, the Bulldogs held on to the game despite a noticeably shaky start and advanced to their first title game in 27 years. They are still in search of their first national championship.

After a wild first period, in which both goalies let in a couple they probably could have stopped, UM-D settled things down, but its special teams earned the win over a sprightly Notre Dame team. If the Bulldogs want to compete with high and confident Michigan, they'll need to shock the nerves out of their system, not just the color out of their hair. As a team-building exercise, UM-D's players opted for peroxide over giving up razors. Bleaching their heads blonde as a sign of unity (though one groom-to-be got a pass), the Bulldogs now look like a cross between the Children of the Korn and a bad Euro-pop band. The look might stun their opponents, but their run to the Frozen Four has really been stunning as they rolled through the regional and unseated the top-seeded Yale Bulldogs two weeks ago in Bridgeport, CT, hehind the stalwart play of goalie Kenny Reiter.

The junior from Pittsburgh has a habit of retreating into his net between whistles. Hunched over with his head down, Reiter backs into his cage like a turtle in a shell, feeling the dimensions of the space he protects. Perhaps ironically, though, he is at his best when he is out playing at the edge of his crease. And he'll have to be much better than he was on Thursday, when his team seemed to bail him out with timely scoring, particularly on a potent power play (though Notre Dame's penalty killing was quite compliant, especially early).

Still, UM-D's power play executes at a high level the seeing-eye cross-ice passing, rushes and puck movement that can be mesmerizing on the ice. Their east-west game will be a real test for Hunwick, who moves across his crease athletically, but can leave the top shelf open by virtue of his size -- or lack thereof.

But it's wise not to underestimate the goalie Berenson has referred to as Rudy, a cinematic callback to the iconic Notre Dame football walk-on. He may not be tall, but as the Sioux can attest, Hunwick can certainly fill the net, just not with pucks.