Neil's Notebook: Goaltending Tandem Leads Spartans Into Opening Weekend
Oct. 17, 2013
By Neil Koepke
EAST LANSING - Jake Hildebrand came into last season as an unheralded freshman goaltender aiming to make an impact on a Michigan State team with lots of youth.
He ended the year as the Spartans' best player and the brightest spot in an otherwise disappointing season.
This season, MSU is counting on the 5-foot-11, 183-pound Hildebrand to be even better, as a Spartan team heavy on sophomores and freshmen begins its first season in the six-team Big Ten Conference.
"I'm coming in with the same approach. I want to compete, battle and earn every second I get,'' said Hildebrand, 20, who's from Butler, Pa. "I gained a lot of confidence last year, and as a goaltender, confidence is such a big thing. That's really helped me.''
Hildebrand and the Spartans get their first tests of 2013-14 when they make their regular-season debut with a two-game, non-conference series at the University of Massachusetts at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday in Amherst, Mass.
Hildebrand, with a laid-back personality but one who loves to compete, takes a simple approach into his sophomore season.
"There's more expectations so maybe there's more pressure, but I try not think about it,'' he said. "I just want to go out and play the game I've been playing since I was 6 or 7 years old.''
Hildebrand played the game very well last season, as he provided the Spartans a chance to win in almost every game he started.
On a team that found it difficult to score goals, Hildebrand compiled a 2.35 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage, but his record of 9-17-2 was not reflective of how he played. He made 27 saves for more in 22 of 28 starts.
After the season, Hildebrand was selected as MSU's most valuable player and rookie of the year.
"Jake is coming off a season in which he performed at a high level, and I'm not sure what expectations he had coming in here,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "Now, it's different. He's established a benchmark and it's how he manages that and how he performs.''
Hildebrand and senior Will Yanakeff give the Spartans one of the best goaltending tandems in the Big Ten and perhaps all of college hockey. Anastos has not designed Hildebrand as the No. 1 starter or set up any type of rotation. It's likely both goalies will play early in the season and if one of the goaltenders stands out and separates himself from the other, then he'll get more playing time.
"We don't have a rotation. We'll make a decision as to who plays on Friday (at UMass) and then we'll use that game as more information in deciding on Saturday,'' Anastos said. "I'm going in open-minded. If we can play two goalies, that's great. But results matter.''
Yanakeff, 21, a 6-foot-2, 211-pounder from Jerome, Mich., played in 15 games last season and started 14. He had a 3.06 goals-against average, a .904 save percentage and a 5-8-1 record.
But as a sophomore, he started 23 games and had solid numbers - 2.50 goals-against average, .922 saves percentage, a 13-9-1 record and played in MSU's NCAA first-round game against Union.
After a week-and-a-half of practice, the Green and White game, and the exhibition game win over Western Ontario, Anastos likes what he sees from his goaltenders. "They've been real consistent, real competitive,'' he said. "Will didn't have the season he had hoped for last year, but he trained really hard in the off-season and he's competing hard in practice.
"I thought he managed the situation last year very well and really grew from that. He knows he'll get an opportunity to play and he's earned it. Now it's a matter of what he does with it.''
Spartan players are hoping to take some pressure off Hildebrand and Yanakeff with better puck possession, more offensive production and strong team defense.
"They made a lot of saves for us. In some games last year, we were giving up 40-50 shots and their goals-against averages didn't change,'' senior captain and right wing Greg Wolfe said.
"Anytime you have a goalie back there who always gives you a chance to win, that's a strength for your team.''
Wolfe said Hildebrand last year "came in and worked hard, kept things simple and didn't try to overextend.''
And what really impressed Wolfe was Hildebrand's composure.
"If he lets in a goal early or has a shutout going and lets in a late goal, he still has the same frame of mind,'' Wolfe said. "He's very calm and collected. If he gets scored on, he doesn't lose focus.
"He's tough to score on because he's so quick. When I'm shooting on him, it might look like there's (an opening) but the next thing you know, he's right there.''
Wolfe said Hildebrand's athleticism enables to him to make saves on shots that other goalies would never get to.
"With his style, he can flair out his legs pretty wide and it seems like he takes up more space than you would think,'' Wolfe said. "He's not the biggest goalie but he covers a lot of ground and has quick hands.
"He has a great ability to be down and still be able to react to a second or third shot. He'll be down in his butterfly (style) and the puck will come (loose) and he has that ability to extend a little farther, getting into the splits or moving his arms a little higher to deflect the puck.
"It's talent and athleticism. He makes a lot of saves on shots in which it looks like he has no chance, but he figures out a way to make the save.''
Hildebrand said he also sees an upgrade in skill from his team's forwards and that's making him better.
"Our forwards are scoring more and I love to see that. We have more depth so practices are getting harder,'' he said. "It makes me work harder.
"I feel really quick right now. I feel like I'm getting better.''
Sorenson will miss both games of the series, sitting out his second and third games of a five-game suspension for a violation of team rules.
Haag, meanwhile, will sit out Friday's game because of a one-game NCAA-imposed suspension for an extra-benefit, travel violation incurred while playing junior hockey in Sweden. Haag, who's from Gothenburg, Sweden, will play in Saturday's series finale.
MSU will also be without three injured players - junior forward Matt Berry, sophomore defenseman John Draeger and sophomore goaltender Nate Phillips. All three underwent surgery recently for the same lower-body injury and aren't expected back on the ice until mid-to-late November.
SCOUTING THE MINUTEMEN: Massachusetts opened its season last weekend with a pair of road defeats - 3-1 at Boston University on Friday and 5-2 at previously No. 1-ranked UMass-Lowell on Saturday.
Coincidentally, both UMass opponents - the Terriers and RiverHawks - will help Michigan State opens its home season next weekend - UMass-Lowell visits Munn Arena on Oct. 25 and BU comes in on Oct. 26.
Last season, UMass finished in 9th place among 10 teams in Hockey East with a 9-16-2 record. The Minutemen were 12-19-3 overall. In this season's Hockey East preseason poll, U-Mass was picked 10th among the league's 11 teams, a boost of one team with the addition of Notre Dame.
UMass returns eight of its top 10 scorers from last season, but that includes four defensemen. The top returning forwards include three seniors - Branden Gracel (14 goals, 20 assists, 34 points), Conor Sheary (11-16-27) and Michael Pereira (13-13-26).
Gracel, Pereira and Sheary played on the same line in two games last weekend.
Goaltender Steve Mastalerz, a junior, played in the Minutemen's first two contests, allowing eight goals. Mastalerz played in 15 games last season and had a 2.96 goals-against average, an .898 save percentage and a 4-8-1 record. Mastalerz last season split the duties with fellow sophomore Kevin Boyle, but after the season Boyle transferred to UMass-Lowell and will sit out one year before becoming eligible.
The Spartans and Minutemen have met three times and MSU has won all three, two in East Lansing and one at Boston University in the first game of the Icebreaker Tournament in 2008. MSU defeated UMass, 3-1, on Oct. 17, 1998 and 6-1 on Nov. 9, 2001 with both games at Munn Arena. MSU won 3-1 in the Icebreaker on Oct. 10, 2008.
Coach John Micheletto is in his second season at UMass after a nine-year stay at Vermont as an assistant. He previously served as an assistant coach at Notre Dame (1999-2003) and Union (1996-99). He's a graduate of Dartmouth.
The Minutemen play in the 8,373-seat Mullins Center in Amherst, Mass. The rink is 200 feet by 95 feet which is 10 feet wider than Munn Arena and most college venues, but still five shorter than Olympic-size rinks like at Minnesota, Alaska, Northern Michigan and Colorado College, which are 100 feet wide.
Massachusetts' most famous hockey alum is goaltender Jonathan Quick, who led the Los Angeles Kings to the 2012 Stanley Cup and is considered among the favorites to be the starting goalie for the 2014 U.S. Olympic team. Former Spartan and current Buffalo Sabre Ryan Miller and Jimmy Howard of the Red Wings are also in the mix for goaltending spots with the Olympic team.
BIG TEN HIGH IN POLLS: Three Big Ten teams are among the top five in both major college hockey polls this week. Wisconsin (2-0) is No. 2, Minnesota (2-0) is No. 3 and Michigan (2-0) is No. 5 in the U.S. College Hockey Online poll and in the USA Today/College Hockey Magazine rankings.
Miami of the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference is No. 1, while Notre Dame, now in Hockey East, is No. 4.
Wisconsin swept Northern Michigan 5-2 and 2-1 last weekend in Madison. Minnesota won the Ice Breaker Tournament in Minneapolis with a 6-0 victory over Mercyhurst and 3-2 win in the title game against New Hampshire.
Michigan defeated Boston College 3-1 last Thursday in Ann Arbor and topped Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), 7-4, on Saturday in front of 10,556 fans at Blue Cross Arena in downtown Rochester, N.Y.
This weekend, the Badgers, Gophers and Wolverines are all on the road in non-conference games. Wisconsin plays at Boston College on Friday and at Boston University on Saturday. Minnesota plays a two-game series at Bemidji State, while Michigan visits New Hampshire for two games.
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