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Matt Slovin: Hunwick for Hobey?

Paul Sherman/Daily
Fifth-year senior goalie Shawn Hunwick is in Hobey Baker contention in his second season as starter. Buy this photo

By Matt Slovin, Daily Sports Editor
Published February 19, 2012

I’ve been waiting to write this column.

It could’ve been written way back in October, when Shawn Hunwick allowed just two goals in a crucial early-season sweep of Ferris State, a team that now sits in the CCHA driver’s seat.

I’ll omit the next few months because, well, Michigan didn’t do much right in November. Had I written otherwise from November through the holidays, my words would’ve dripped with sarcasm.

But after the break, there was ample reason to write it again.

At the Great Lakes Invitational, Hunwick looked more like Detroit Red Wing Jimmy Howard, who usually occupies the Joe Louis Arena crease that “Tiny Jesus” stole for two nights in late December.

The back-and-forth, holy-crap-what-a-save duel that Hunwick and long-time friend and Michigan State netminder Drew Palmisano got into in overtime was reminiscent of the runway scene in Zoolander. But at the end, the Spartans couldn’t hold Hunwick’s underwear — err, jock strap.

It really could've been written after the Frozen Diamond Faceoff weekend. The old adage goes, “Sometimes you run into a hot goalie” — then-No. 1 Ohio State ran into one twice, as Hunwick recorded a career-high 46 saves in the series-opening win before allowing just one goal in the outdoor game to complete the sweep.

Then there was that weekend three weeks later, when Hunwick almost single-handedly crushed Miami (Ohio), a team that had embarrassed Michigan earlier in the season. That’s when Hunwick, the most surprising goalie in the history of Michigan hockey, began garnering serious national attention. And the questions soon followed.

Can a goalie win the Hobey Baker Award? It hasn’t been done since 2001, when Michigan State’s Ryan Miller won.

Is Hunwick the long-awaited, public-school version of Rudy in college hockey?

If Hunwick skates behind the net to collect and distribute the puck, can he see over the crossbar?

Okay, so maybe nobody was really asking the last one. But Hunwick was beginning to make a legitimate case for the trophy given to college hockey's most excellent player.

So why am I writing this column now, besides the fact that I’m quickly running out of weekends?

This weekend, Hunwick was his usual self: solid, if not stellar; Impressive, if not incredible. There’s simply no other player in the nation that so consistently gives his team a chance to win.

Sure, you could say that’s because he’s the goalie — as Hunwick goes, so does Michigan. But the team completely rallies around its leader. No player in the country has as much ability to inspire the team with his play than Hunwick. It's much easier to give the extra effort when he is willing to stand on his head every night.

And that’s exactly what happened when Hunwick made a rare mistake in Saturday night’s win over Northern Michigan. The out-wide shot that Hunwick casually gloves dozens of times over got through and grazed the side netting. But that equalizer was hardly on his teammates’ minds while they looked for the winner. Instead of blaming Hunwick, the Wolverines sought to earn him the senior-night victory, and that's exactly what they did.

Six weeks from now, in Tampa, Fla., does Hunwick skate out as the Hobey winner? I’d say probably not. The odds are heavily stacked against goaltenders from the beginning. Goal scorers — like Colgate’s Austin Smith, who has scored 33 times this season — get all the glory.

But the fact that he’s even in the conversation — and he’s certainly got a strong case going — speaks volumes. And with a rock-solid end to the season, he should absolutely get a finalist invitation.

It’s safe for me to say it now. There’s not going to be any late-season recoil on Hunwick’s part. And I won’t print a retraction if he chokes down the stretch. But something tells me he won’t. That wouldn’t be a storybook ending to Tiny Jesus’ fairy-tale career, which I'm left to believe still has some pages to fill.