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Neil's Notebook: Goaltender Competition a Positive

Will Yanakeff

Nov. 8, 2012

By Neil Koepke, staff writer

Michigan State coach Tom Anastos' message to his goaltenders is that they should be prepared to see a lot of pucks coming their way this weekend.

The highest-scoring team in the nation is next up for the Spartans and goaltenders Will Yanakeff and Jake Hildebrand are expecting to be busy when MSU faces Michigan in a CCHA series at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Yost Arena and at 7 p.m. Saturday at Munn Arena.

The Wolverines are averaging 4.43 goals a game and 41.4 shots on game in their first seven contests.

"They'll shoot if they're standing on the boards,'' Anastos said with a laugh. "They shoot from all over the place so you can't let down for a minute. They always want to throw pucks at the net.''

Despite a tough opening weekend in which the Spartans (3-4-1 overall, 2-2 CCHA) were overwhelmed by Minnesota, 5-1, 7-1, MSU's goaltending has become one of the strengths of the team, especially over the last three games.

Hildebrand, 19, a 5-11, 182-pound freshman from Butler, Pa., has looked solid in his first two starts - a 4-2 victory at Lake Superior State on Oct. 27 and a 1-0 loss at home against Bowling Green last Friday. He has a 1.72 goals-average and .938 save percentage in three games.

Yanakeff, 20, a 6-2, 211-pound junior from Jerome, had his best game of the season in a 6-1 rout over Bowling Green last Saturday. Yanakeff has played in six games and has a 3.49 goals-against average and a .884 save percentage. His numbers are inflated because of allowing 11 goals in two games against the high-scoring Gophers to start the season.

"I'm happy that we have two goalies who are in a good frame of mind coming into this weekend,'' Anastos said. "I thought our goaltending last weekend was the best it's been this season.''

Hildebrand looked sharp and alert in the loss against the Falcons, keeping his team in the game with some clutch saves in the second and third periods. The only goal he gave up was on a screen shot from the left point.



"I thought there was a good opportunity to get Jake a home start and I thought he played really well,'' Anastos said. "The one puck that went in, he didn't see.

"He handled the puck well and positionally, he was really good.''

On Saturday, with Yanakeff getting the start, MSU struck for two goals in the first period and three in the second and was in control most of the game. But Yanakeff, who made 18 saves, made a couple key stops in the first and second periods when the game was close.

"We wanted to get Will back in the net. To date, I don't think he's played to his potential and I think he feels that way,'' Anastos said. "He didn't have a ton of shots but he was tested with some good chances. He saw the puck really well and he wasn't fighting it.''

Anastos hasn't revealed his goaltending plans for the weekend, but there's a chance both will play, or if Friday's starter is red-hot, he could come back and play the second game of the series on Saturday.

Both Yanakeff and Hildebrand are eager for the challenge of stopping the Wolverines (3-3-1 overall, 2-2 CCHA), coming off a 4-4 tie (and shootout win) and 4-3 loss last weekend at Northern Michigan.

"When you play most teams, they're not just throwing pucks to the net. They're trying to create high-quality scoring chances,'' Yanakeff said. "Michigan does both. You can see they're a highly skilled team and can create chances off the rush or they get pucks to the net and try to create rebounds.

"When you watch video, you notice that their defensemen jump up into the play a lot and that makes it harder. Hopefully, we can combat this by not making many turnovers and keeping the puck on our sticks.''

Hildebrand, who spent the last three seasons in the U.S. Hockey League with the Sioux City (Neb.) Musketeers and Cedar Rapids (Iowa) RoughRiders, is well aware of Michigan's reputation as a high-powered offensive team.

"They're a very skilled team. You just look at all their NHL draft picks (11),'' he said. "My goal is to make every save that I should make and then come up with a few that you're not supposed to make.

"You worry about stopping the first shot, then you have to trust your defense. It's about competing as hard as you can.''

Yanakeff, who played in 12 games as a freshman and 23 as a sophomore while sharing the duties with Drew Palmisano, says he feels more confident and relaxed in this third season.

"I always say that I want to improve on every aspect because there's always something you can do better,'' he said. "Right now, I feel relaxed and it's nice being a junior because I know what to expect.

"Once you get into the routine of knowing what to do and how to prepare, it makes it a little easier.''

Yanakeff believes he and Hildebrand will push each other to be improve and play at a high level every weekend.

"I think our goaltending is pretty strong. Obviously, the Minnesota series didn't go the way we wanted, but since then we've been a lot better,'' he said. "I thought Jake came in and played really well in this first starts. We know we're competing for the same job and it's a healthy situation.''

Hildebrand, who played in 43 games last year in Cedar Rapids, said the college game requires an adjustment because of the speed and skill of the players is at higher level and there's fewer games and more emphasis on practice than there was in juniors.

"I think I've played pretty well and the guys have helped me out a lot,'' he said. "When I got the first start (at LSSU), I remember after our team meeting, coach saying that `We were going to win this game.' It put a little pressure on me but pressure is good, too.

"I'm playing with confidence, I think I'm handling the puck pretty well and controlling rebounds. I try to make positioning a big part of my game. If you're in the right position, a lot of pucks will just hit you, so you don't always have to make acrobatic saves.

"At some point, every goalie has to make them because the players are so fast and skilled. But if you're position, it's easier to make the saves.''

Hildebrand grew up in the Pittsburgh area and started playing hockey at a young age. Over the last few years, Pittsburgh has become a hot-bed for college and junior goaltenders.

The list includes Parker Milner (Boston College), Kenny Reiter (Minnesota-Duluth), Rob Madore (Vermont), Bryce Merriam (Rensselaer), Matt Skoff (Penn State, and Hildebrand's teammate in Sioux City), Mike Houser (London, Ontario Hockey League), and John Gibson (Kitchener, Ontario Hockey League).

"We can thank Shane Clifford for that. He's a well-known goaltender coach from the Pittsburgh area,'' Hildebrand said. "I've been with him since I was seven years old. He's like a dad to me. Most everything I know about hockey, I learned from him.

"If you're a young goaltender from Pittsburgh, you go to Shane Clifford.''

Hildebrand started to get recruited by MSU when he was in his second season in the USHL. He was contacted by former assistant coach Brian Renfrew. When Anastos and the new coaching staff took over, the Spartans were still interested

"In the summer of 2011, I got a call from Shane Clifford, who said (assistant coach) Kelly Miller just called him about setting up a campus visit,'' Hildebrand. "So in early July, I visited Michigan State and Shane came with me.''

Two days after the visit and getting a scholarship offer, Hildebrand made a verbal commitment.

"I loved the campus, Munn Arena, everything about the school,'' he said. "I had visited Quinnipiac (in Hamden, Conn.) and liked it, but I wanted a bigger school.

"When I saw the rink, the Smith (Academic) Center and where we work out (Duffy Daugherty Building), the choice was made. It was easy.''

RIVALRY NOTES: Coach Tom Anastos still remembers his first game as a Spartan player against Michigan. It was 4-3 loss on Nov. 20, 1981, in Ann Arbor. After that, Anastos' teams lost one more game to the Wolverines in his four seasons at MSU (1981-85). He was 15-2-1 as a player - 7-1 at Munn Arena, 7-1 at Yost Arena and 1-0-1 at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. . . In one season as head coach, he's 1-3-1 against Michigan. Last season, the four games that didn't end in a tie were decided by one goal and two of MSU's losses came in overtime.

In the last five seasons of the MSU-Michigan rivalry, the Wolverines hold a 14-8-1 edge. In the previous five seasons (2003-2007), the Spartans were 9-8-1 against U-M. . . . MSU's seniors are 6-8-1 vs. Michigan, going 3-3 in 2010-11 and 2-2-1 in 2011-12. . . .

The Spartans' top scorer against Michigan is senior left wing Kevin Walrod, who has five assists in 11 games. MSU senior forward Chris Forfar and sophomore forward Matt Berry lead in goals with two apiece. The Wolverines' top scorer against MSU is senior Kevin Lynch, who has four goals and four assists for eight points in 15 games. Senior forward A.J. Treais has the most goals with six, also in 15 games. Treais is currently U-M's top scorer with seven goals and 10 points in seven games. . . . Michigan has four goalies on its roster and the two starters thus far this season are freshman - Steve Racine (3-1-1, 2.96 GAA, .885 save percentage) and Jared Rutledge (0-2, 4.52, .852).

MSU and Michigan have played more games than any other college hockey rivalry. The teams have met 289 times with the Wolverines holding a 145-125-19 edge, according to MSU records. But 41 of U-M's victories came between 1922 and 1957, with the Spartans winning only two games during that span.

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