By this point, anyone who follows the CCHA even casually knows the story of Shawn Hunwick. Make no mistake, his rise from being Matt Hunwick’s younger brother to injury fill-in and from being a tenuous starter that lost his job to Big Chill and NCAA Tournament hero has been impressive, but as the tumultuous 2011-12 CCHA season grinds to a close, there’s a new chapter to be written.
Hunwick’s no longer just a good story; he’s legitimately among the best netminders Michigan’s ever had – boasting the best save percentage and goals-against average in program history at this point. And as the Wolverines find themselves in an interesting psychological position – seventh place in the standings but just five points out of first – Hunwick finds himself with the opportunity to do more than inspire walk-ons everywhere, he’s got the chance to put this team on his back as they attempt to end a national title drought that’s fast approaching a decade and a half.
After coming within an overtime goal of the Frozen Four in 2010 and an overtime goal of the national championship last April, Hunwick knows that every second counts as the clock ticks down towards the end of the season, and that ticking is as loud as ever with just four regular-season series remaining.
Having had summers and seasons to reflect on those two crushing disappointments, the lesson Hunwick took away, one that he’ll be sure to convey to his teammates in the coming weeks, is that even a seemingly innocuous mental mistake at any point in the game can make all the difference.
“The thing that you learn when you lose in overtime two years in a row is that every shot counts,” Hunwick said. “You have to play hard every shift, whether it’s the first shift of the game or the last, you need to go hard all the time. If you knew you were going to lose in overtime, you might change something earlier in the game that might have prevented it from getting to overtime.”
And if there’s anyone who notices those tiny moments, bounces, lapses or surges that can change the course of a game – and in a tightly-contested year like this season they matter every night – it’s Hunwick.
Thinking back on his team’s victory over Boston College at the Great Lakes Invitational from over a month ago, a win that seemed to give the team great confidence, Hunwick easily recalled the details of a contest that seems to mimic Michigan’s season.
After the Wolverines jumped out to a 2-0 lead – a lead that might have been four or five goals had some bad bounces, breakaways and near-misses gone their way – Boston College climbed back into the contest and seized control in the second period, tying the game and looking poised to run away with it.
But then there was that moment, a sliver of opportunity, the type of moment that Hunwick referenced when talking about the little things that can turn a game and a season around.
Forward A.J. Treais forced the issue when Boston College mishandled a puck at the point, and parlayed a give-and-go play with teammate Luke Glendening through the neutral zone into a go-ahead goal that put the Wolverines in control.
Michigan has only lost one game since that night after having won just two of its previous 10, and the Wolverines find themselves not on the outside of the national tournament looking in, but as a potential participant with a high seed if they can come up with a strong finish to the regular season.
It’s a different story than the team from two years ago that rallied to finish just two games over .500 and a different tale than last year’s team that was strong throughout the year. But those experiences helped Hunwick learn what it takes to lead a team down the stretch – something he’s done well this year, with a little help from his defense.
“I think that each year has been a different roller coaster,” Hunwick said. “I think that this team is in a pretty good place, starting with our top four on defense. That’s really been the key to our second half run.”
Hunwick credits his defense with making the most of extended playing time in the first half of the year while Jon Merrill was suspended, and thinks that their ability to settle into permanent roles upon his return has been the key to team success, and will be the key for any tournament triumph.
But before tournament season, the Wolverines will try to remain a key player in the CCHA title race and the race for home ice in the conference playoffs this weekend when they host a Miami team that has seemed to have Hunwick’s number. Hunwick is just 1-4-1 all-time against the RedHawks, including the double-overtime loss in a 2010 regional championship game, but he’s ready to seize each moment and change that this weekend.
“Miami has had a great record against us in (recent seasons),” Hunwick said. “We can’t take that away from them, but we can start to change that this weekend. Their team is well-coached by Coach Blasi and they have an unbelievable amount of depth. When we went down to Miami they came out all over us and played a physical game. We just need to dictate the tempo and play our type of game.”
With a surging Miami team followed by series against heated rival Michigan State and a Northern Michigan team that Hunwick will no doubt be ready to play against after a dust-up in Marquette last fall on the horizon, Hunwick has a lot to keep track of – rivalries, his final games at Yost Ice Arena and conference titles.
But ultimately, not that he’s looking past any single opponent, or even taking a tournament bid for granted, the senior has his eye on the big prize.
“Winning the CCHA regular season championship and playoff championship were great experiences,” Hunwick said. “But Michigan hasn’t won a national championship in 14 seasons, and that’s what I am striving for, that’s the one I want to put on the mantle.”
Now it’s up to Hunwick and his teammates to live up to that lesson the goaltender learned in Marches and Aprils past – the lesson that every moment counts, and they can’t afford to slip up for even a second if Hunwick’s vision of another trophy on Yost’s mantle is to come true.