And with that, the 2010-2011 Michigan Wolverines hockey season is over.
One bad turnover, one quick pass-and-shoot, and Minnesota-Duluth has won the national championship.
On one hand, I should be feeling disappointed. I should feel terrible right now. Instead, while I'm not ecstatic, there's an inner sense of contentment.
In hockey, like life, it is not necessarily the ending that is as important as the journey to get there, especially in college hockey. This is not the end of anyone's story, but merely the closing of a chapter, as we turn the page to next season, next job, and next life milestone. This is especially true in college hockey, as any team is merely a waystation for what is to come in life. Every member of that roster came into Michigan with different circumstances, and will leave changed for the better, win or lose.
It's with this outlook that I can't help but be satisfied with the season. This season was left better than it was approached, and that has to leave a great impression.
Before this season, the Michigan fanbase could expect greatness from the team only if everyone played as well as they could, and I do mean everyone. There was no surefire star on this team, no obvious future NHL'er that could carry the team all year. Instead, Michigan was a very good team from top to bottom, and greatness had to come from hard work, solid play, and a little luck.
If things came together, this story would go down as a great one. If not, this squad risked the same ignominy that the football team has had recently. Remarkably though, Michigan's stories, big and small, were as epic as we could have hoped.
Shawn Hunwick was not supposed to be a Michigan goalie. He certainly was not even supposed to become a full-time starter. Summing this up is today's New York Times article on him, titled "Walk-On Goalie Is on Brink of Title". Not "Shawn Hunwick, Walk-On Goalie Is on Brink of Title." Merely "Walk-On Goalie". Walk-on players, of any stripe, aren't supposed to get much playing time, much less at such a crucial position. That article isn't just amazed at what Hunwick has done, it's astonished that a walk-on could be the winning goalie for a national championship. Any walk-on would be amazing, especially in this role.
Meanwhile, Hunwick barely played during his freshman year, did not play during his sophomore year, and ended up backstopping a miracle run in 2010 before coming in during the biggest regular season game in school history during the warmups, and never giving up the job since. At the end of the season, Shawn had a tournament run for the ages, with game after game of fantastic goaltending. Is that anything to be disappointed about?
Carl Hagelin was not supposed to be a team MVP at the University of Michigan. No Swede had ever played in Ann Arbor before, as the Swedish path to pro hockey wove through various national elite leagues. Carl's first trip to Ann Arbor was even as an afterthought, tagging along with his brother to Red Berenson's summer hockey camp. Eventually, Hagelin settled on Michigan to continue his hockey career, coming in as a fairly unheralded recruit, and the first ever Swede to play for Michigan.
Four years later, the Michigan Hockey Pep Band was playing the Swedish national anthem before Senior Night. The student section was signing a giant Swedish flag with good luck messages. And Carl Hagelin ended his career at Yost Ice Arena as a team legend, with a last-second overtime goal to keep CCHA championship dreams alive. Over the course of four years, Hagelin has developed into a remarkable player, with team records for speed (60-0 on team races up the Michigan Stadium steps), team scoring championships, a team MVP award, being named the CCHA's top defensive forward, and being named an All-American.
At this time next year, around the time that new banners go up, and old banners get updated, there will be a Carl Hagelin plaque hanging in the north hallway of Yost. Is that anything to be disappointed about?
Four months ago, we were all somewhat worried about Michigan Hockey. The team was underachieving, as every weekend brought a loss on Friday night, before a consoling win on Saturday. There weren't that many strong weekends for the Wolverines, as it looked like a repeat of 2009-2010's struggles. Only, how many streaks could one team go on? Would this be where the luck ran out?
The fulcrum of the season, for better or worse, looked to be the Big Chill, coming up that weekend. Years of preparation went into this game, with everything seemingly ready except for the host team.
It took a last second injury to place Shawn Hunwick between the pipes for Michigan that day, and he did not give up a goal. From that point on, he was rolling, for that game, for that season.
Just over the halfway mark of the first period, freshman Jon Merrill, until that point just known as a big recruit, scored to put Michigan up 1-0. He'd score another later on, as Michigan romped to an eventual 5-0 win, and Michigan started on the first real winning stretch of the season. Nine wins in ten games put us in contention for a CCHA title, and brought another GLI championship to Ann Arbor.
Two months ago, Michigan was again reeling. The season seemed to have slipped away with two brutal losses in Oxford, Ohio. The Wolverines came into a weekend series at Miami with a chance to put the Redhawks away, and instead came out of it in 3rd place. 4-2, and 3-0. Two crucial losses, with no games left to play against the teams above us in the standings.
Michigan came back to Yost needing to win with outside luck for a championship. In the first weekend, the Wolverines held onto two games against Ohio State, both by one goal, both with great defense at the end. Meanwhile, Miami split a series with Lake Superior State, and began running out of games, ultimately getting passed by two teams.
In the second weekend, Michigan started off on Friday with a blowout win over Western, 6-3. Michigan played with desperation, scoring two goals in the first period, two goals early in the second, and keeping Western at arms length. Despite all of that, every point was crucial, as Notre Dame kept winning to stay in 1st place.
On Saturday night, it wouldn't be so easy for Michigan. Western jumped out to a 3-1 lead, Michigan fought back to tie the game at 3, and Western punched back with a goal early in the 3rd period for a 4-3 lead.
Over that last period, Michigan played like their season came down to it. After chance after chance barely missing, Carl Hagelin came into the Western zone, fired a random shot on net, and the puck squeaked into the bottom corner. 4-4. Tie game. At that point, I firmly believe that Michigan willed that puck in. The players, the fans, everyone. Everyone in that building willed the puck into the net, and there was nothing that could be done about it. Five minutes later, the same thing. One last rush before losing any hope of three points, and Carl's last shot won it. Michigan had to win this game, and we won on our last gasp.
Naturally, Michigan would win during the last weekend of CCHA play, and have Notre Dame lose, at home, on Saturday night, on three goals that were waived off, to finally win the conference title. What a way to end the regular season.
Can either of those two parts of the season be considered a disappointment?
Sure, we didn't win the national championship. We lost in overtime, of the very last game of the year. Still though, three straight tournament games where we hung on by the closest of margins, and all of them were victories? I guess we couldn't make it four straight, but three straight victories like that ain't that bad.
At the end of the day though, this Michigan Hockey team was a remarkably fun one to watch. The journey of this season was one to remember, even if the ending was not absolutely perfect. Even before the tournament, the season was filled with great performances, unbelievable games, and a roster full of players that will go down as greats.
Looking back, any Michigan Hockey fan has to be satisfied. This season was one to remember, and one to remember with pride, joy, and fondness.
And as always, go Blue.