In late October, the Michigan hockey team embarked on its first road trip of the year, traveling up to Marquette — a town that is basically the Great White North — to take on Northern Michigan. It was the first CCHA test for the fifth-ranked Wolverines.
In the series opener, fifth-year senior goaltender Shawn Hunwick was posting a shutout, making 17 saves through a period and a half.
But then a Wildcat forward ran into Hunwick after a shot — Hunwick responded by sending him to the ice with a mean right hook. He was ejected from the game, forcing untested sophomore Adam Janecyk into the game. Michigan lost 5-3, then won in a shootout the next night. The Wolverines took two out of six points in its first CCHA series of the year — and Hunwick was a big reason for that unsuccessful first weekend.
On a team with eight freshmen, it’s hard to imagine that the 24-year-old Hunwick would be the poster child for improvement in the maturity department. But with the regular season winding down, it’s become clear how much Hunwick has changed since the tussle in the Berry Center.
“I think he’s figured it out,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “It’s part of the game. We need to protect him, but in the same token, he’s got to under-react. It’s not his battle. His battle is to stop the puck.
“With any goalie, if they get distracted, they aren’t the same.”
The Wolverines have completed their most physical three-series stretch of the season, playing on the road against Notre Dame and Michigan State, and taking on Miami (Ohio) at home. In each of those series, but especially against the Fighting Irish and RedHawks, Hunwick was knocked down, beaten up and battered.
In South Bend, there was a scrum near the net after almost every save. Freshman forward Alex Guptill said Notre Dame played dirty to try to incite Hunwick to repeat his knock-out performance.
But Hunwick stayed out of the fray, letting the other Wolverines around him deal with the extracurricular activities.
“I feel like, in that Notre Dame series, if I didn’t already have that Northern Michigan experience, I would have acted differently,” Hunwick said.
When the RedHawks visited Yost two weeks later, they seemed to have a similar plan. Hunwick was knocked to the ice several times, including a scary moment when he was blindsided and needed a couple minutes to right himself.
Again, he stuck to his post.
“Before that Northern game, I didn’t think something like that was going to happen,” Hunwick said. “But after you have that experience in the back of your head, you know that you aren’t going to get to that point again.”
Hunwick has been Michigan’s best player this year, earning a spot among the handful of Hobey Baker contenders. When he’s on — and he has been for about the last two months — Michigan is one of the best teams in the country.
Hunwick keeping his cool and focusing on goaltending instead of boxing is a major reason the Wolverines are within striking distance of first place in the CCHA, sitting six points behind Ferris State.
“I think he’s definitely been the difference in a handful of games this year,” Berenson said. “He was the reason we won the game on Saturday (against Michigan State). He’s having a great year.”
When the Wildcats visit Ann Arbor this weekend, they will find a different, wiser Hunwick in net — and they only have themselves to blame.