Frozen Four preview: Defense bolsters ‘underdog’ Michigan

It’s unusual for any team of Wolverines to head into a Frozen Four as underdogs, but this Michigan squad understands that role very well, even though the school is making its 24th appearance in the national semifinals, its 11th under coach Red Berenson and its second since 2008.

In 2010, the Wolverines finished in seventh place in the CCHA and needed the autobid that came with the league playoff title just to make the NCAA tourney. Without the play of goaltender Shawn Hunwick — who had started just six career games before the Wolverines played for the Mason Cup — Michigan would have watched last year’s tournament from Ann Arbor.

At the start of the 2010-11 season, Hunwick had earned the right to rotate in net with Bryan Hogan, whose late-season injury in 2009-10 had given Hunwick (2.26 goals-against average, .922 save percentage) his initial opportunity.

For the first half of the season, the team played inconsistent hockey in front of the goalie rotation. When Hunwick became the full-time starter in December — again because of an injury to Hogan, this time in warm-ups before the Big Chill outdoor game — the Wolverines became contenders, lifting themselves to the CCHA regular-season championship in the last game of the year.

“Shawn Hunwick … he wasn’t even supposed to be our goalie,” said Berenson. “He’s found a way to be our go-to guy and he’s been a confidence builder for our team. And, certainly, every team at this time of year needs a good goalie, and we’ve got a good goalie in Shawn Hunwick.”

This year’s Michigan team is the sum of a whole bunch of things that probably shouldn’t add up to a Frozen Four appearance, at least on paper. “I think this team has been an above-average team led by its seniors, but we haven’t had the prolific scorers that some our teams of the past [had],” said Berenson. “I think our best team had seven 20-goal scorers. We don’t have one 20-goal scorer on this team, so it’s a different kind of team.”

Led by seniors Carl Hagelin (18-30–48) and Louie Caporusso (11-19–30), Michigan has five players who have scored more than 10 goals, and one of them, Scooter Vaughan (13-10–23) is a senior defenseman who’s been moved to forward.

Berenson called Hagelin and Caporusso “the bread and butter” of this year’s Wolverines. “Certainly, we’ve been up and down at times depending on how they’ve played or how they’ve scored,” he said.

With scoring down, Michigan’s defense this season has at times been its saving grace, allowing 2.26 goals per game on average.

“We used to be known for our offense, and we’re still trying to be that team, but we don’t have quite the depth or the offensive skill that we used to have, but we’re in the games,” said Berenson. “We’re in most of the games we’ve played and we’ve had to battle to find ways to win games.”

Facing North Dakota, the only No. 1 seed remaining in the Frozen Four, with an improbable squad makes Michigan “like every other team,” said Berenson.

“All you can do is prepare for it. Do we have a chance? Everybody has a chance. We’re probably the overwhelming underdog in this game, but we still have a chance.”