Butler's Hildebrand shines for Michigan State hockey squad
With four seniors and 10 freshmen on the roster, players on the Michigan State University men's hockey team knew they were in for a rebuilding season.
Not surprisingly, the Spartans went into the holiday break with a 5-10-2 record.
Many believe the future is bright for Michigan State, and Butler's Jake Hildebrand is one of the team's promising players.
The freshman goaltender has emerged as the go-to guy in net for the Spartans. He appeared in 10 of the team's first 17 games (3-5-1 record) and posted a 1.81 goals-against average and a .941 save percentage, both of which rank among the top 10 nationally.
“I got to see everything develop in the beginning. We have a junior goalie with a lot of experience,” Hildebrand said.
“In our third game (a 7-1 loss at Minnesota), I got to play the third period. There was no pressure. I got my first start against Lake Superior State (on Oct. 27) and we got the win on the road.
“Later, I started and we beat Michigan 7-2. I started the next five or six games and got on a roll. It was nice to have the coaches gain a lot of confidence in me.”
Hildebrand attended Butler High School through his sophomore year. He spent the last three years playing in the United States Hockey League.
“I think the USHL prepared me as much as possible,” he said.
“The guys in D-I are bigger and faster; they are so skilled. I came here July 1 and got to skate here all summer with the guys. That helped me acclimate myself to the speed of the game. Practices are really hard. I think that's really helped me.”
In addition, Hildebrand has found that every opponent on the ice is a threat to score.
“The higher level you go up, there are no bad players. Everybody is really good, so you can never take a shift off or lose your focus,” he said. “No matter if it's a fourth-liner or a team's leading scorer, they can score goals.”
Hildebrand is pleased with his progress so far.
“I really didn't know what to expect coming in,” he said. “I just wanted to get in the mix and get as many starts as possible. I have been getting a lot of playing time, and it's hard to be disappointed with that. I just want to start winning.”
Patience has been the theme for the young Spartans.
Three of their four leading scorers are sophomores and the fourth is a freshman.
“People knew we'd make our mistakes with the inexperience we have. We can't use it as an excuse, though,” Hildebrand said. “We have a lot of promising young players. They are good now, but they are developing and getting more experience each game.
“I think we're building for the future now and competing and trying to get better as part of the process.”
Hildebrand knows his team is close to breaking out. Four of Michigan State's losses have been by a goal.
“We're in a tough spot. Every game we've lost, we've been in, pretty much. We just have to keep getting better. We've had some tough opponents. I think the conference race is really tight. A goal here or there and we can get back in it,” he said.
“The coaches tell us not to worry about the score, but worry about how hard we're working. If we worry about the score, we lose focus. We just have to keep working hard and good things will happen.
“I think the guys knew the first half of the season was tough. In the second half, we'll see what we can do.”
Joe Sager is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.