Feb. 14, 2013
By Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com staff writer
Victories have been scarce for Michigan State this season, but every time the Spartans take the ice, they still have a legitimate chance to win.
Goaltender Jake Hildebrand.
He's only a freshman and only 19-years-old. But the 5-foot-11, 182-pounder from Butler, Pa., has been rock solid in goal period after period and game after game.
He's played in 21 games, made 20 starts, given up 45 goals and there's hardly a soft goal in the bunch.
Every time there's a chaotic scramble around the MSU net, Spartan players, coaches and fans have come to watch with confidence, feeling that somehow Hildebrand will find the puck, make the save, deflect it to safety or just smother it.
Usually, that's what happens.
"He's been amazing. He gives us a chance to win every night. What more can you ask of your goalie?'' said Spartan junior captain and right wing Greg Wolfe.
"I don't think anyone knew what to expect from him. He's confident, he carries himself well and he's always ready to go. It's the same in practice. Every day, you expect a good to great performance from him.''
It's been 32 years since a Spartan freshman was named the team's most valuable player, but it looks like that's going to change this year. With only six games remaining in the regular season, Hildebrand is the clear favorite to be named MVP at the team's awards banquet on April 17.
The last rookie MVP was goaltender Ron Scott in 1981. Scott was also selected as MVP in each of the next two seasons before leaving MSU to join the NHL's New York Rangers organization.
Hildebrand doesn't have a lot of wins - his record is 5-13-2 on a team that's 8-19-3 - but he does have impressive numbers in other categories.
His save percentage of .934 is third in the CCHA in overall games and his 2.21 goals-against-average is 7th. Hildebrand averages 30.2 shots per game, the most in the CCHA.
During a stretch of 10 games from Dec. 29-Feb. 2, Hildebrand faced more than 30 shots each game. The game-by-game totals: 32 shots, 36, 31, 33, 34, 35, 33, 50, 37 and 45.
Finally last Saturday, Hildebrand saw only 26 shots against Bowling Green. He stopped 25 and led the Spartans to a 3-1 victory at Munn Arena.
"Positionally, he's very sound. He's always square to the puck and not many shots beat him really clean,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "That's been impressive.
"At his experience level, I've been impressed with how he approaches things every day. That's the hardest thing for (players) to understand. Some come in and work hard sometimes. And some guys come in and learn how to compete hard every day and prepare themselves when they're called on.
"Hildy has good practice habits and he's a very competitive kid. Those are the traits that we hoped we identified in the recruiting process, but you really never know. I'm really happy with that so far.''
So are his teammates.
"When you have a guy who plays like he does every night, people want to play for him,'' Wolfe said. "You want to to do well because of the performance and how hard he works.
"He's been the most positive thing on this team up to this point. Hopefully, he can keep it going and hopefully we can keep getting wins for him.''
The 11th-place Spartans play another series with major CCHA standings implications this weekend against 10th-place Northern Michigan (12-14-4, 6-12-4-1 CCHA). The teams meet at 6:30 p.m. on Friday and at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday at Munn Arena. The Wildcats are four points ahead of MSU.
After the NMU series, MSU has just four games remaining - two at Alaska, Feb. 22-23, and two at home against Western Michigan, March 1-2.
This weekend will be Hildebrand's first look at the Wildcats, who are facing the Spartans for the first time this season. A year ago, the teams split a series at NMU in November and MSU won and tied in two games at Munn Arena last January.
During the last three seasons, Hildebrand was developing his talents with two different teams in Iowa in the U.S. Hockey League. He played with Sioux City late in 2009-10 and spent a full season in Sioux City in 2010-11. Last season, he played in Cedar Rapids.
Hildebrand made his first collegiate start in MSU's sixth game this season, and made a big impression in making 24 saves in a 4-2 victory at Lake Superior State.
Since then, he's started 19 of the Spartans' last 24 games.
In his 20 starts, Hildebrand has allowed two goals or one goal in 15 games. But in 15 of his starts, his team has scored two or fewer goals - five were shutouts and in four games, MSU scored one goal.
But Hildebrand's demeanor never changes. He supports his team's efforts and never mentions the obvious lack of goal support. Despite the losses, Hildebrand continues to stay focused and enjoys working hard to get better and trying to do as much as he can to bring about a victory.
Spartan sophomore forward Tanner Sorenson says he's impressed by Hildebrand's attitude and enjoys his easy-going personality.
"He's really played well and has been so consistent. One thing that he has on his shelf that some goalies don't is he doesn't get rattled,'' Sorenson said. "We can joke around with him.
"When he gets scored on, he has one mindset and stays consistent. He's loose and doesn't get too intense. He worries about himself and what he can control. He's competitive and works hard.
"A lot of goalies can get rattled when they get scored on and get their minds messed up. Hildebrand could let up six and he'll be the same goalie.''
So far, Hildebrand hasn't given up six goals. One or two goals is the norm.
And that gives the Spartans a chance to win every night out.
HERE COME THE 'CATS: A few weeks ago Northern Michigan was on a roll with a 5-0-1 run, from early January to later in the month against three good teams - St. Cloud State, Miami and Ohio State.
But over the last five games, starting with two losses at Alaska, the Wildcats are 0-4-1, including an 8-3 crushing at the hands of Michigan Tech on Tuesday.
MSU and NMU have similar strengths and weakness. Both teams don't score a lot of goals but they have excellent goaltenders and fairly good defenses. Although, they do differ on defense in that the Spartans have four first-year players, while the Wildcats are bigger and more experienced with two seniors, two juniors, one sophomore and one freshman.
NMU is averaging 2.27 goals per game (44th in the nation among 59 teams) while MSU is at 2.07 (55th). On defense, the Wildcats have a 2.77 goals-against average (34th nationally). The Spartans are a shade better at 2.73 (31st).
There is one disparity: Northern Michigan is the most penalized team in the CCHA along with Ferris State, both averaging 15 minutes a game, while MSU is the least penalized team, averaging 11.8 minutes.
The Wildcats are led by junior goaltender Jared Coreau (12-14-4, 2.60 GAA, .918 save percentage) and top scorers senior Matt Thurber (3-22-25) and sophomore Reed Seckel (10-8-18).
Over the last five seasons, the Wildcats lead the series 10-7-2. This series will be the final CCHA regular-season meetings between the two teams.
AVOID LAST PLACE: The goal for Michigan State (19 points) Northern Michigan (23), Michigan (25), Lake Superior State (26) and Bowling Green (28) is to avoid last place and finish as high as possible. And perhaps end up in eighth or seventh place to earn home ice for the first round of the CCHA playoffs.
Each team except Michigan has six games left. The Wolverines, off this weekend, have only two.
"This is a huge weekend. (Northern) is four points ahead of us and if we win both games, we move ahead of them and tie Michigan,'' junior forward Tanner Sorenson said. "Hopefully, we can work our way to home ice for the first round.''
If the Spartans have a shot at finishing at least 8th, they'll likely have to go no worse than 4-2 in their last six games, with a sweep over NMU, and get some help from other teams in games against the Wildcats, Wolverines, Lakers and maybe even the Falcons.
For a team that's won only three times in its last 11 games, going 4-2 looms as a major challenge.
If the Spartans wind up in one of the bottom three spots, what they would like to avoid is a matchup at Alaska, which would make it two trips to Fairbanks over three weekends. MSU plays at Alaska next weekend. The playoffs start March 8.
BERRY STILL ON TOP: Sophomore forward Matt Berry continues to lead the Spartans in scoring with 11 goals and nine assists for 20 points, despite going the last five games without a point.
The suddenly- red-hot Greg Wolfe and sophomore Tanner Sorenson are tied for fourth with 15 points apiece. Sorenson has nine goals and six assists. Wolfe, who's scored five goals and collected two assists in his last seven games, has seven goals and eight assists in 30 games.