SAINT PAUL, Minn. – Playing the underdog role isn’t something Michigan’s hockey program is used to. After all, the Wolverines have a record nine NCAA championship banners hanging from the rafters of Yost Ice Arena, more than any other program in college hockey.
But on Thursday night, Michigan found itself matched against the high-powered North Dakota Fighting Sioux, another school with a rich tradition on the rink. And to make matters more difficult, the close proximity to Grand Forks turned the neutral Xcel Energy Center into a green and black sea of Sioux fans.
Shawn Hunwick and the Wolverines’ defense must be deaf and color blind.
Despite being heavily out-played, Michigan played almost flawlessly in its own end to sneak past North Dakota, 2-0, earning the right to play for the school’s 10th national title on Saturday against Minnesota-Duluth.
Hunwick stopped all 40 shots he faced, but many of those tries by the Sioux were head-on. The Michigan defense blocked 16 shots on the night, and clogged most of the passing and shooting lanes when North Dakota was buzzing, especially in the third period.
“We didn’t want to play in our zone as much as we did tonight. Our team had to play more in our own end tonight than we had all year,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “Part of the good defense was just getting the puck out of the zone.”
Since giving up two goals in the first period against Nebraska-Omaha in the first round of the tournament, the Wolverines have only surrendered one tally in nine periods, outscoring opponents, 7-1, over that stretch.
Even with Michigan playing well defensively on Thursday, its top players weren’t allowed a sniff of the net. The dynamic duo of Carl Hagelin and Louie Caporusso were held to only three shots total, and the Wolverines managed to fire just 18 shots on goal.
To the credit of Michigan’s star players, their night wasn’t unsuccessful just because they didn’t light the lamp. The top lines were effective in shutting down the deep North Dakota attack. UND’s first unit of Matt Frattin, Evan Trupp and Brad Malone did have half of their team’s shots on goal, but many of them weren’t quality chances.
With the big names on the Wolverine roster preoccupied, heroics needed to come from unlikely sources. That’s just what Ben Winnett provided for Michigan.
Winnett scored to put his team up 1-0 in the first period after collecting a pass in the slot and patiently waiting for Sioux goalie Aaron Dell to go down. Once Dell was on the ice, Winnett wristed a shot over him for his fourth goal of the season.
From there, it was the Hunwick show. The senior netminder seemed unfazed throughout the contest as he calmly swallowing up shots, kicked rebounds away from dangerous areas and made a sprawling save or two when needed.
“I don’t think they spread us out too much,” Hunwick said of North Dakota’s offensive attack. “There were a lot of straight-on shots from the front of net that I was able to see. Our team did a good job blocking shots.”
Scooter Vaughan iced the contest with an empty netter just after Dell had been pulled with 1:36 to play in the third, turning the Wolverine bench into a frenzy.
Vaughan is just one senior in the group that decided to come back and play for another shot at a national title. With Minnesota-Duluth’s offense clicking on all cylinders right now, the Wolverines know they will have their hands full.
But that doesn’t make them loose focus on the ultimate goal.
“I knew we were going to have a good team coming into the year,” said Hagelin, one of eight seniors on the Wolverines. “Our goal was to come to the Frozen Four and do well.
“I’m happy to be here right now, but we have one more game to go and if we don’t win that one we won’t be satisfied.”