Bryan Hogan should know a little bit about how Shawn Hunwick is feeling right now.
No, Hogan never earned the timeless “Rudy” moniker that Michigan coach Red Berenson has bestowed upon Hunwick in light of the junior walk-on goalie’s 5-1 record thus far as a Wolverine.
And Hogan, unlike Hunwick, had started a collegiate hockey game before he took over for Billy Sauer as the starter in goal last season. Hunwick, on the other hand, had little more than garbage time experience before Hogan’s injury two weeks ago.
But the Hogan of last season and the Hunwick of this season look nearly identical on the stat sheet thus far.
And despite both of their valiant performances, most of that statistical wonder has little to do with their own performances between the pipes.
Instead, it has everything to do with how the Wolverines played around them.
In the six games after Hogan took over for Sauer on Dec. 5, 2008 against Michigan State, Michigan scored a staggering 30 goals, averaging five goals per game.
In the same period of time this season, the offense surrounding Hunwick has registered 28 goals, which amounts to 4.5 goals per game. Another staggering number.
For perspective’s sake, that number would be good enough for tops in the NCAA in either year — a goal or half-goal in both cases.
To be fair, this year’s offense wasn’t exactly reeling before Hunwick stood tall in net, lighting the lamp an average of 3.2 times per game. Today, that number would be good for 22nd nationally.
But an offensive explosion like the Wolverines have experienced as of late is still amazing in comparison. Maybe that has to do with Louie Caporusso’s rebirth, notching 11 goals in 15 games and looking in Hobey Baker form.
The fact that this happened last season though, when Michigan coach Red Berenson openly admitted that he had no idea why his team scored more for Hogan than Sauer, leads me to an entirely different conclusion.
The Wolverines are simply playing harder, more inspired hockey with Hunwick in net. The same way they did when Hogan took over for Sauer.
I don’t know if it’s the mentality that they needed to account for having a walk-on, career backup goalie in net that led for the change or what. The truth is, we’ll never know for sure.
What’s even more difficult to ignore is the way each defense responded when either backup goalie took over for the team’s original starter. And in a season full of underachieving defense, the fact that Hunwick in goal has turned it around should pique the interests of the team’s coaches.
When Sauer was benched for good last season, the Wolverines only allowed six goals in Hogan’s first six games — just one goal per game.
A season later, while Hogan watched from the sideline, Hunwick’s defense only allowed nine goals in six games — just one-and-a-half goals per game.
As you may have already expected, no other team in college hockey was playing that well on defense.
You get the point. Last year, with Hogan in net, the Wolverines immediately became a better team. Not because Sauer was a lesser goalie, but because they simply played better around Hogan.
This year, Hunwick hasn’t had to stop many good scoring opportunities like Hogan had to do early this season. But the team around him is playing a much more complete game, and his nearly flawless record to this point has shown it.
The Wolverines even have a shot at the NCAA Tournament, despite flirting with .500 for a lot of the season.
I don’t necessarily think Hunwick is a better goalie than Hogan by any means. In a few instances, Hunwick has given up goals just as soft, if not softer, than Hogan did earlier in the season.
But the truth is, this team is playing its best hockey with a walk-on between the pipes. It doesn’t make sense. But it’s the truth.
And coaches, maybe this is a sign that your team needs to keep its motivation no matter who is in net. That sense of urgency you’ve talked about all year? I guess this is what you meant.
So despite the fact that Hogan was in full pads during Monday’s practice, seeing a few shots here and there, he shouldn’t necessarily play this weekend. In fact, if Hogan plays, the Wolverines probably won’t be in the tournament.
Because Shawn Hunwick is the goalie that might convince this team to play its best game of the season, get past Miami (Ohio) on Friday and maybe even secure a bid in the NCAA Tournament.
Just don’t ask me why.