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MSU's tourney hopes buoyed by rising star Hildebrand

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — At the start of a tournament, any hockey coach has a prime desire among a list of druthers: a hot goaltender.

At Michigan State, Tom Anastos can check it off.

Jake Hildebrand, the 21-year-old junior from Butler, Pa., is the Big Ten goaltender and player of the year. He is also nominated for the Mike Richter Award (top NCAA goaltender).

More important for the Spartans, however, is the Hildebrand is hot now, when they have a shot at the championship in the Big Ten tournament, and the automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.

Michigan State will play Michigan at 8 p.m. Friday after the Wolverines eliminated Wisconsin Thursday.

"I didn't think he had the greatest first third of the season," Anastos said of a performance mirrored generally by the Spartans.

"I think, probably since early December, especially that second Minnesota game that we played (in East Lansing), I think he's just been outstanding and continues to get better and is playing at a higher and higher level every week."

Hildebrand's mind-set seems secure. The awards and nominations are all alike, and he says he is pleased and honored. But he just wants to play and win in the tournaments.

"I definitely think that would be really special," he said on the Big Ten Network about winning the Richter. "But, right now, I'm just focused on winning hockey games with the Big Ten tournament coming up this weekend at Joe Louis."

His .930 save percentage led the conference. His 2.12 goals-against average led the conference.

He played 99.2 percent of the team's minutes, leading the nation.

In 10 games against three of the top five offenses in the nation, he stopped 92.2 percent of the shots and gave up 2.60 goals per game.

Since Jan. 1, he leads the nation in save percentage (.950) and is sixth in goals against average (1.55).

He also has five shutouts, second most in the country, during that time.

Most importantly, as Hildebrand says, he is winning. The Spartans are 10-5-1 during that span.

Three others improving

Hildebrand comes with a supporting cast, however. The Spartans became formidable defenders over the course of the season, and their offense also began to perk up late.

"We're just seeing a maturation of a number of guys that we thought would happen over a period of time," Anastos said.

"Mackenzie MacEachern (11-14-25) is continuing to get better. Mike Ferrantino (12-11-23) has gotten better all season and has played real well for us.

"I think Ryan Keller (11-8-19) has kind of emerged a little bit and is evolving into a real dependable player for us."

Draeger in tune

Some players have to contend with more trials than others, and Anastos is particularly complimentary of one of his blue-line men in that regard.

Defenseman John Draeger (plus-6, 27 games) endured surgeries during consecutive offseasons, depriving him of critical training.

"I think he's finally finding his groove," Anastos said. "And he gives us another guy back there who can log lots of minutes and who is highly competitive."

gregg.krupa@detroitnews.com

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