By Stefan Kubus –
They say that numbers don’t lie, but with a 2-4-1 record between the pipes, Michigan State freshman goaltender Jake Hildebrand is debunking that old adage each opportunity he gets to man the Spartans’ goal crease.
In those four losses, the Spartans have only scored one goal in support of their goaltender. That’s where the rest of the picture is painted, as Hildebrand has recorded an impressive 1.76 goals-against average and .942 save percentage. Those numbers are not only good for third and second in the CCHA, respectively, but also for seventh and third in the entire country.
With the lack of offensive support on the scoreboard, it’s hard not to feel for a kid who is shining so brightly already in his young career.
And head coach Tom Anastos said he definitely hasn’t given Hildebrand the opportunity out of obligation.
“The only thing we’ve given him was that first period of time in Minnesota that he played in the third period of the one game,” Anastos said. “Outside of that, he’s earned his time through practice and competing hard through practice. When he’s been in games, he’s played very well.”
Hildebrand, an 18-year-old native of Butler, Penn., has certainly been one bright spot on a young Michigan State squad – featuring nine freshmen and two transfers – struggling to find the back of the net on a consistent basis.
Just because he’s emerged as the team’s go-to guy in net, Hildebrand said it hasn’t affected his relationship with junior Will Yanakeff, who he said has served as a great motivator and mentor to him since his arrival on campus.
“I wanted to compete for a spot,” Hildebrand said on coming into the season. “I think if you ask any goaltender, I don’t think he’s going to tell you he’ll be the back-up. I wanted to compete as hard as I could. I told Coach Anastos on my visit I wanted to be able to compete for a spot. And I know Will’s a junior, he’s a great goaltender and I love the relationship we have, but I really wanted to be able to push for playing time as much as I possibly could and to make each other better.”
Since that aforementioned visit, Hildebrand said he’s been fortunate to receive the time he’s getting, citing his coach’s good word over the summer.
“Everything he’s promised me, he’s kept his word,” Hildebrand said.
“It’s nice getting in there regularly so you’re not just shell-shocked when you get in there. I think I’ve calmed my game down a little bit, just staying relaxed in the net, so I think that’s helped me develop.”
Before coming to East Lansing, Hildebrand played junior hockey in the USHL. Toward the back end of the 2009-10 season, he joined the Sioux City Musketeers, leaving his U-18 Cleveland Barons AAA club. Ironically, this move was made in order to replace Yanakeff, who was dealt to Waterloo in exchange for some offensive help. After another year in Sioux City and a commitment made to play for Michigan State, Hildebrand was dealt to the Cedar Rapids Roughriders. There, he compiled a 20-14-7 record, 2.79 GAA and .913 save percentage.
While Hildebrand has honed his skills to acclimate to the collegiate level since his USHL days, his teammates – senior alternate captain Chris Forfar included – still knew they had a solid goaltender entering the program this season.
“I don’t know how many strides he’s had to make,” Forfar said of his freshman netminder. “He came in as a good goaltender, got his opportunity to play, and he made the most of the opportunity. He’s shown the entire nation what he can do… It’s nice to know that he’s making all of us better by stopping our shots in practice.”
Anastos said that he has been impressed with Yanakeff’s performances in practice, as well, but that Hildebrand “is not allowing us to take him out of the net.”
Freshman defenseman John Draeger – a third-round selection of the Minnesota Wild in 2012 – said it’s Hildebrand’s poise that keeps things simple and comfortable for the young defensive corps on the back end.
“He gives us a chance to win every game,” Draeger said. “I can’t ask anything more out of him. I love playing in front of him because I know he’s got my back if I make a mistake.
“He just gives us that confidence to go out there and win games.”
Draeger added that Hildebrand’s communication – an often overlooked aspect of goaltending – makes life that much easier on the team as a whole.
“Him talking out there, being confident, just lifts the team up a little bit. Especially as a defenseman going back for loose pucks, I can’t see big guys coming behind me, so him talking out there telling me that [a forechecker] is on me or something like that just helps everyone out.”
At this point, it looks like the Spartans have a bright future between the pipes. And if the offense breaks out, the Green and White could be dangerous in the second half of the season.
“I don’t know that we can ask him to do any more than he has,” Anastos said. “His save percentage is excellent, his goals-against is excellent. He’s made big stops when we’ve needed big stops… and that’s what we need right now.”