ST. PAUL, Minn. – Michigan didn't back down from North Dakota's normally dominant attack, and goalie Kevin Hunwick did everything but stand on his head.
Now the Wolverines will play for the national title the Fighting Sioux wanted so badly.
Ben Winnett's first-period goal gave defensive-minded Michigan an early edge and Hunwick made 40 saves for his fourth shutout this season in a 2-0 victory over North Dakota on Thursday night in the NCAA semifinals.
"I was pretty confident. I think I'd rather be in a game like that than seeing 15 shots against," Hunwick said.
Scooter Vaughan added an empty-netter with 35.8 seconds left, and the Wolverines (29-10-4) will meet Minnesota Duluth on Saturday. The Bulldogs beat Notre Dame 4-3 in the other semifinal at Xcel Energy Center, the home of the NHL's Minnesota Wild.
"I think we outplayed their top players," said Winnett, who with linemates Matt Rust and Luke Glendening harassed Sioux star Matt Frattin and his friends Evan Trupp and Brad Malone all night.
The Fighting Sioux (32-9-3) saw their 15-game unbeaten streak end in crushing fashion.
"To not win a national championship is heartbreaking," said defenseman Derrick LaPoint, one of six seniors who stuck together for four years instead of turning pro. They saw their college careers come to a sudden end after becoming the popular pick to win it all by beating Rensselaer and Denver with a combined 12-1 score last weekend at the regionals.
The game was extra-physical, particularly in the first period while the Wolverines used their rugged, disciplined defense to set a sharp tone that persisted throughout the night. Sioux forward Brock Nelson slammed into the boards so hard after a hard check by Glendening that he left on a stretcher and went to a hospital as a precaution with what the team called a lower-body injury.
"We all have that mindset that we want to block every shot," said Michigan captain Carl Hagelin.
With two-dozen NHL draft picks between the teams, this was a classic matchup of college hockey powers. Michigan's 34 NCAA tournament appearances, 24 Frozen Four trips and nine national championships are the most of any school. North Dakota has seven titles, tied with Denver for second place.
Though both teams made it to the Frozen Four in 2008 and coach Dave Hakstol has led the Fighting Sioux to the national semifinals five times in seven seasons, the success in the last decade hasn't been as frequent — at least by their standards — for either side.
Michigan's last title was 1998. North Dakota's was 2000.
The crowd — announced as a standing-room sellout of 19,139 customers — was awash in bright green and white shirts and jerseys to give North Dakota a noisy advantage with a steady serenade of pro-Sioux chants. The campus in Grand Forks is a five-hour drive from St. Paul, where North Dakota won the Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoff championship last month.
The only remaining No. 1 seed in the tournament and the second-highest scoring team in the nation at 4.14 goals per game, the star-studded Sioux generated plenty of quality chances to score but were out of control at times, particularly on the power play. Hunwick made huge save after huge save, seeming to frustrate the North Dakota skaters.
There were plenty of loud groans from the green-clad fans, sharing that angst.
Winnett gave the Wolverines the lead when he grabbed his own rebound in the slot and zipped it past North Dakota goalie Aaron Dell from the right circle just 6:34 into the game, Winnett's first goal since late December.
Hunwick, who took over as the starter on Dec. 11, has anchored a stout back-end unit. The Wolverines led the Central Collegiate Hockey Association in scoring defense, and Hunwick's goals-against average was 1.95 in league play. He had a run of 43 straight saves in the regional last weekend and is 20-5 this season.
Frattin made a nifty wrist pass to captain Chad Genoway in the second period, but his slot shot was swatted away by Hunwick, one of seven Wolverines seniors who actually started their college careers on this same ice in October 2007 when they played in a mini-tournament hosted by Minnesota.
North Dakota had a fourth power play midway through the third period, managing only one shot, and that was from the blue line. Michigan has killed 16 of 17 penalties in the NCAA tournament so far.
Dell was pulled with 1:12 left, giving the Sioux an extra skater, but they couldn't punch one in and Vaughan sealed it a few seconds later.
"I don't know if I had to make a save once they pulled their goalie," Hunwick said. "Guys were diving around like crazy."
Hakstol spoke sternly, insisting the Sioux weren't worried about wearing the favorite label and only focused on their own lofty expectations.
"Just going to be brutally honest: I don't think anyone in our locker room considered the option of losing. Period," Hakstol said.
From the coach to the players, the Sioux were adamant that they weren't frustrated at any point, even if their performance suggested otherwise. Hakstol said he didn't see "one second" when doubt crept in for his team.
"Everybody was loose. Everybody felt comfortable all night," LaPoint said. "There was nobody gripping their sticks too tight."
Red Berenson, the stone-faced, raspy-voiced veteran of 27 seasons in charge of the Wolverines, was sympathetic toward the Sioux. He said they reminded him of his 1997 squad, a heavy favorite that lost in the semifinals to Boston College.
"They've got to be stunned. I know we were," Berenson said, adding: "They're a better team. There's no way we can match up with them, but in one game can you win that game? Absolutely."