Hockey set for Detroit showdown with Hildebrand, Michigan State

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By Zach Shaw, Daily Sports Writer
Published January 29, 2015

Riding a seven-game win streak and scoring more goals per game than any team in the country has since 2004, the No. 13 Michigan hockey team will be the clear favorite in Friday’s matchup against Michigan State at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.

But with rivalry bragging rights and conference positioning on the line, plus potentially more than 20,000 fans watching, the Spartans have one player who may be able to slow the Wolverines’ roll and allow Michigan State to come away with an upset win: Jake Hildebrand.

The junior netminder — who’s also the last goalie to hold the Wolverines to less than four goals — has a .924 save percentage and a 2.40 goals-against average in his career, and currently leads the Big Ten in minutes, saves, save percentage and goals-against average. And if last week was any indication, he’s only now hitting his stride.

Hildebrand stopped 55 of 56 shots in a weekend sweep of Ohio State, earning him Big Ten First Star of the Week accolades. If he’s at his best, the Spartans have a fighting chance at slowing an offense that is averaging 4.36 goals per game.

“He’s a competitor, that’s what separates him,” said Michigan State coach Tom Anastos. “He goes out and competes consistently, and we’re reliant on him at times because of how consistent he is.”

Despite Hildebrand’s hot streak, Michigan (7-1 Big Ten, 15-7 overall) heads into the matchup unfazed. That’s because it has made even the best netminders look foolish in recent weeks.

Whether it was eight goals in a game against 2013 New York Islanders draft pick and Penn State starter Eamon McAdam, 13 goals in a weekend sweep of Wisconsin’s former NCAA top-10 goaltender Joel Rumpel, 18 goals in two games against a pair of veteran Ohio State goaltenders or even 11 goals in two games over reigning Big Ten Player of the Year Adam Wilcox of Minnesota, the Wolverines know that, if given the chance, they’ll find the points.

“It’s pretty hard to prepare for a goalie,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “If we knew his weaknesses, he wouldn’t be so good and we’d have no problem. We prepare for their style of play, or some of their tendencies or their strengths or weaknesses.

“I think our team knows that if push comes to shove, if we can get a couple scoring chances, we’ll find a way to score.”

Though Hildebrand will prove to be Michigan’s toughest challenge since its 2-5 start to the season, the Spartans (3-3-2, 9-11-2) have had fits of inconsistency on both sides of the puck. Anastos knows that for his team to walk away with a win, he’s going to need a strong performance by his entire team, and maybe a little rivalry magic in the neutral-site game.

“They’re a different team than they were the last time we played them,” Anastos said. “They’re doing some incredible things, especially on the offensive side of the puck. They’re not just a one or two-line team that has holes or breaks, they can roll out any line and be a threat.

“We have to play with a lot of energy. It’s going to be an emotional game, and we need to use that emotion, but also have the discipline to play our game and not get down if we fall behind.”

The two teams have a rivalry dating back over 90 years, and they know that an added level of intensity is in the air when they face each other that can provide an x-factor in a tight game.

“It’s bigger than any of us,” Berenson said of the rivalry. “It was here before I came here as a player, and I didn’t fully understand it at first. I had no idea coming in, then I realized, ‘Holy Jesus, this is a war when we played those guys.’

“It’s a rivalry that has endured, and we know there’s a lot of people watching this game, so we need to make sure we’re ready.”