All-American junior goaltender Jake Hildebrand has saved himself a spot in MSU history
“I think he’s the most important player on any college hockey team,” senior forward Brent Darnell said.
“I still don’t know how that stayed out of the net,” head coach said.
“When we have Jake Hildebrand in net, I expect to give up one at most,” sophomore forward Mackenzie MacEachern said.
“What can you say about Hildy? He’s unbelievable,” Darnell said.
Many words have been used to describe ’s junior goaltender Jake Hildebrand’s play this season. Spartan players and coaches were oftentimes in awe of the remarkable performance in the net that they’ve grown accustomed to by now.
A native of Butler, Pennsylvania, Hildebrand arrived on the MSU’s campus in fall 2012 as an undersized, overmatched goaltender.
With then-junior goaltender returning after starting 23 games the previous year, Hildebrand competed for his spot and wound up starting 28 games as a true freshman.
“When he came in when we recruited him, I remember him sitting in my office,” Anastos said. “The one question he had for me ... he asked me if he’d get an opportunity to compete and to play. I said, ‘Absolutely.’”
Anastos kept true to his word and it’s safe to say it has worked out for him. Hildebrand ended his freshman season by posting a .924 save percentage and a 2.35 goals-against average, which earned him an honorable mention on the All-CCHA Rookie Team.
This all happened when the MSU team also featured eight more freshmen and only had two returning defensemen – and even one of those was a converted forward.
“When he got the opportunity, he took advantage of it and he really earned more opportunity,” Anastos said. “He showed a poise and a level of confidence that allowed him to have success and really built the confidence of his teammates and the coaching staff around him.
“I think that’s just continued to track upwardly over the past two seasons.”
Heading into his third year as the Spartans’ starting goaltender, Hildebrand was the unquestioned star of MSU’s program. While he still put up respectable statistics through the first half of the season, Hildebrand’s play was not up to the standard that he had built for himself.
“This year, I thought he started maybe a little slower than we would have anticipated,” Anastos said.
Part of the reason Hildebrand battled inconsistency was actually because his defense was playing better in front of him.
With more experience and skill on defense, the Spartans were not giving up the type of grade-A scoring chances that Hildebrand was used to. The change of pace took Hildebrand some time to get used to.
“It doesn’t hurt to have a lot of shots,” Hildebrand said late in the season. “I think it’s easier to stay in those games, but I’ll take those 21-shot nights when I can get them.”
MSU’s much-improved defense was the main pillar in Hildebrand’s All-American season — he was named a First-Team All-American in April according to MSU Today. The Spartans led the Big Ten and ranked 13th nationally in goals allowed per game. The penalty kill topped the conference and MSU’s 16.7 blocked shots per game ranked second nationally.
“When I can trust my defense to take away the pass and I can take that extra step out and get more depth on a shot, it makes my life so easy,” Hildebrand said.
After getting a better feel for this season’s defense, Hildebrand finished the season as one of the best goaltenders in college hockey.
New Year’s Day seemed to bring a resolution to Anastos’ concerns about his goaltender. Since January 1, Hildebrand led the nation with a .947 save percentage and ranked seventh with a 1.82 goals-against average.
Over his impressive 17-game stretch, Hildebrand shut out the opponent five different times and held them to two goals or less 12 times.
Hildebrand’s play led MSU to a 10-6-1 record over the last three months of the season and a surprising second place finish in the Big Ten.
With numbers that are hard to ignore, Hildebrand was consistently rewarded throughout the season and in big fashion after it.
With four Big Ten First Star of the Week nominations, awards for Big Ten Goaltender and Player of the Year and being named a First-Team All-American, not many Spartans have had a decorated season like the one Hildebrand just finished.
After a season like that, it would not be hard to imagine a goaltender becoming boastful and haughty. Yet, Hildebrand’s humility and ability to share the praise remained a constant.
“The goalie can’t do it by himself, so I think whenever the goalie’s succeeding, it means the team is playing well too,” Hildebrand said.
The Richter Award finalist was often barraged with questions about his individual accomplishments, and he always answered them the same way.
“Like all the other personal awards, I think it’s a reflection on your team and how dedicated we are to playing team defense,” Hildebrand said.
While he is certainly proud of his accomplishments as a Spartan, Hildebrand did not come to MSU to win Player of the Year.
“It’s always cool to win individual awards, but they don’t put banners in the rafters here at Munn,” Hildebrand said. “That’s our main goal.”
It’s not just a face he puts on for the media, either. Junior captain was Hildebrand’s roommate last year, and even he can’t believe the star goaltender’s demeanor sometimes.
“He’s actually one of the most humble kids I’ve met,” Ferrantino said. “I was giving him a hard time (after he was named Player of the Year). Right after we got back, he starts cleaning our balcony off and kind of cleaning up the apartment and I go, ‘Whoa, hasn’t changed you one bit.’”
It is that kind of gallantry that has earned Hildebrand the respect of his whole team. In a position that is infamous for being occupied by egotistical, eccentric players, Hildebrand’s mild approach seems to win over his teammates.
“I think our team has really grown around him, and we have so much confidence in him that it helps the rest of us play well too,” Ferrantino said.
That type of chemistry paid dividends for the Spartans this season. It also made Hildebrand’s individual awards seem like a team accomplishment – just like Hildebrand wanted it.
“His teammates really respect him and you can see a sincere happiness by his teammates for his individual success,” Anastos said.
It is not by mistake that Anastos found himself such a tremendous goaltender both on and off the ice. He spotted it before Hildebrand even committed to MSU.
“We didn’t know his demeanor like we know it now because obviously you spend limited time with them,” Anastos said. “But we liked his style, we liked his competitive nature, and we liked how hard we saw his teammates play for him.”
Hildebrand was one of the first recruits Anastos landed as the coach at MSU. Tasked with rebuilding a storied program, the new coach knew where to start.
“In our sport, really only one player can win you or sometimes even lose you a game, or make as much of an impact on the game of hockey,” Anastos said. “When I came in to attack rebuilding the program, that’s where you start. You start in goal.”
After playing every minute of every game this past season, it is clear Anastos picked the right guy to help turn the program around.
MSU is known for its goaltenders with former players like Ryan Miller, Bob Essensa, Norm Foster and Jeff Lerg.
Given Hildebrand’s success in his three years at MSU, there’s a chance he could go to the NHL next year.
Remaining at MSU could be promising for next hockey season, as many other strong players are returning in the fall.
Either way, Hildebrand could be considered one of the best to stack the pads at MSU — not that he would readily admit it.