Junior defenseman Matt Hunwick thought he was done playing in the shadows of his teammates.
With the graduation of senior defensemen Nick Martens, Eric Werner and Brandon Rogers following the 2004-05 season, Hunwick became the de facto leader of the Michigan back line. He entered this year as the most experienced and most talented returning defenseman for the Wolverines.
The coaching staff even named Hunwick an alternate captain prior to the season.
But last Saturday, it wasn’t Hunwick the Yost Ice Arena crowd chanted for; it was his defensive counterpart, freshman Jack Johnson.
It’s a good thing that staying in the background suits the Sterling Heights native just fine.
Playing alongside Johnson for much of the season, Hunwick has collected quite a stat line. He leads the team with a plus-17 rating, is tied for fourth in the CCHA in points amongst defensemen, and has started to show a penchant for big hits.
“Hunwick has been tremendous all year,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “He had a good summer, and you could just see the improvement in him. Of late, as the games become more important, you can just see him rising up. He’s playing the best hockey of his career.”
It’s been hard to miss the evolution of Hunwick’s game. In just the second contest of the season, against Quinnipiac on Oct. 8, the junior had a five-point game that included the second hat trick of his career.
“The first game he stepped on the ice, you could just see the growth in him as a player from a year ago,” Berenson said. “I think part of that was the graduation of Rogers, Werner and Martens. Now, Hunwick is the most senior defenseman.”
Recently, Hunwick has added a new dimension to his game. He never shied away from contact in the past, but now he seems to have embraced it. He can be counted on for two or three huge hits throughout the course a game.
“Going towards playoff time, games are a lot more tight-checking and closer,” Hunwick said. “I don’t know if you’re looking for big hits, but opportunities have presented themselves more so lately than they have in previous games.”
Hunwick has combined his solid checking with steady offensive play. The junior is capable of moving up to help out on offense when needed. There is a delicate balance between being too defensive and too offensive, and Hunwick appears to have mastered this fine line.
“You just have to know the situation, and what time it is in the game,” Hunwick said. “You try to do what’s best for the team. But I’ve been doing this so long it’s just instinctive.”
The junior has also been instrumental in Johnson’s development. Both are built in the same mold. Big, physical presences on the ice, each combines stature with a flair for offense.
“I love playing with Matt,” Johnson said. “He’s fun to play with, a great skater, a smart player, and I think we play well together.”
With all the uncertainty surrounding playoff time, the Wolverines have the luxury of a solid, veteran defenseman who has been through all types of battles. Even if the fans don’t notice it, the coaching staff realizes a good thing when they see it.
“This is Matt’s first time to really be a leader of the defense,” Berenson said. “I think he’s done a great job partnering with Jack Johnson . and showing the way for the rest of our defense.”
Notes: Former Wolverine and current New York Islander forward Jeff Tambellini tallied his first career NHL goal on Tuesday night. Tambellini, a first-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Kings in 2002, was traded to the Islanders last week at the trading deadline. Last year, he led the Wolverines in scoring as a junior before deciding to forego his senior season to play professionally.