ST. PAUL, Minn. — Dave Hakstol never stopped to consider what this moment would feel like.
“I’m just going to be bluntly honest,” the North Dakota head coach said Thursday night in the wake of his team’s 2-0 loss to Michigan at the 2011 NCAA Frozen Four. “I don’t think anybody in our locker room considered the option of losing down the stretch. Period.”
When the Fighting Sioux rolled through the NCAA Midwest Regional by a combined score of 12-1, there was little reason to consider it. The only one of the top four national seeds to reach the Frozen Four this year, the Sioux arrived at the Xcel Energy Center as a heavy favorite to bring home the eighth NCAA Championship in program history, although Hakstol and his team didn’t concern themselves with outside expectations.
“We came in with our own expectations,” Hakstol said. “I feel like we had a good hockey team and we played extremely well down the stretch. We’ve built that over time through the season, and we played a pretty good hockey game tonight. So regardless of any of the expectations or rankings from the external side, this is real tough.”
Michigan head coach Red Berenson remembers exactly how tough it is. He was in Hakstol’s shoes in 1997, when a Wolverines team that featured Hobey Baker winner Brendan Morrison and future NHLers like John Madden, Marty Turco and Bill Muckalt came up short in the national semifinals against Boston University.
“They’ve got to be stunned,” Berenson said of the Fighting Sioux. “I know we were in ’97. We were stunned. There’s so much confidence and so much momentum built up in your season. And they rolled through the season, they rolled through their playoffs, they rolled through the first regional.
“They’re stunned. They can’t believe it. They’re going to second guess themselves, you know, ‘I should have shot or that’ or ‘I should have scored,’ or whatever. And you can’t get it back.”
As bitter as that defeat was, it was a good reminder for the veteran Wolverines bench boss of what was possible for his team in Thursday’s second national semifinal game.
“It was pretty hard to match us up,” Berenson said. “I told you the other day that, you know, they’re a better team, there’s no way that we can match up with them. But in one game, can you win that game? Absolutely. And our team found a way to do that.”
That way involved an awful lot of senior goaltender Shawn Hunwick, who stopped all 40 shots he faced on Thursday to earn his fourth shutout of the season.
“We have a ton of confidence in him right now,” senior defenseman Chad Langlais said of Hunwick. “He showed up tonight. I think we relied on him a little too much tonight but he bailed us out.”
Hunwick, for his part, wasn’t expecting to have quite so busy a night, but as the intensity picked up, the native of Sterling Heights, Mich. only felt his confidence grow.
“We talked about how I didn’t have to come in here and steal a game,” Hunwick said of his preparation for the Frozen Four. “I look at a lot of scores form previous Frozen Fours, and last year I don’t even know if one [game was within] four or five goals. That wasn’t how I think, coming in with the mindset that I was going to have to steal one. But once I settled in, in the second, I felt like I could do it if I had to.”
Hunwick had plenty of help from a defense that blocked 16 shots and made it very difficult for the Fighting Sioux to get high-quality scoring chances. The Wolverines knew that a strong defensive effort would be an absolute must coming in against a high-powered offensive team like North Dakota, which arrived in St. Paul averaging 4.14 goals per game.
“We came into the game knowing that we had to play well defensively,” Wolverines captain Carl Hagelin said, “and that includes great goalkeeping, blocking shots, back checking, and just our Ds playing low. We all have that mindset: that we want to block every shot, we want to get the puck out, and that’s been the strength of our team lately. We want to make sure we’re playing well defensively, and things are going to go our way then.”
The Wolverines got the offensive opportunity to go their way when senior forward Ben Winnett got the puck on his stick after a blocked Jon Merrill shot and wristed it over North Dakota goaltender Aaron Dell. It was just the fourth goal of the season for Winnett, an unlikely offensive hero for the Wolverines, but the man who managed to be in the right place at the right time.
“Ben Winnett had three goals,” Berenson said. “He’s a senior. I expected more from him in his senior year. But I can tell you he’s playing his best hockey right now whether he scores or not. But I put Winnett with [Matt] Rust and Luke Glendening. And between the three of them I think they have 15 goals. They played against a line tonight that had 69 goals, and yet they outscored them. So that can happen.”
Despite the offensive firepower of North Dakota’s “Pony Express line,” which put 20 of North Dakota’s 40 shots on Hunwick, the 1-0 score stood until the final minute of the game, when senior Scooter Vaughan scored an empty net goal to seal the stunning victory.
“That’s why we came here,” Vaughan said in the locker room after the game. “No one expected us to win, but everyone in this locker room knew we could. We had no doubts in this room. It’s good being the underdog. I mean, no one expected us to win, no one gave us a chance, and we proved everyone wrong.”
Whether the Wolverines will win the 10th NCAA Championship in program history on Saturday night remains to be seen. However, one thing is certain: when the Wolverines arrive on Saturday night to face Minnesota-Duluth, no one will be doubting them.