Ohio State goaltender Settling in as No. 1 Starter
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
Following a recent 4-1 road victory at Lake Superior, Ohio State coach Mark Osiecki admitted that he "lost sleep" over not starting senior goaltender Brady Hjelle in the second game of that weekend’s series, which the Buckeyes lost 3-2. The next weekend – last week at Michigan State – Osiecki started Hjelle in both games of the back-to-back series, and Hjelle delivered, allowing just one goal all weekend and leading the Buckeyes to their fifth win in their last six games.
Hjelle has, in fact, been the model of consistency for goaltenders in the CCHA all season long, leading the league in all statistical categories after posting a 3-1-1 record in November with two shutouts, a 0.62 goals-against average and a .978 save percentage.
And as much sleep as Osiecki may be losing over coaching decisions, his star goaltender apparently isn't losing any sleep at all.
“I don’t really consider myself superstitious,” said Hjelle, whose back-to-back wins last week at Michigan State came in his first back-to-back starts of the year. “I try to get in a pre-game nap, but if I don’t sleep, I’m not too worried about it. I learned in juniors – we had a time when our bus broke down before the game, and we had five minutes to get on the ice for warmups.
“I went through that kind of stuff, so you just have to be ready to go out there and play no matter what happens.”
Certainly, Hjelle’s attitude has developed thanks in large part to a somewhat complicated journey for the senior netminder – one that has allowed him to mature both on and off the ice. After playing for Cedar Rapids (Iowa) in the USHL as a junior, Hjelle played his first two years of college hockey at Minnesota-Duluth, where he started part-time as a sophomore.
However, following his sophomore season, Hjelle parted ways with the Bulldogs – “the toughest decision” Hjelle ever had to make, he once told The Columbus Dispatch.
Both parties, it turned out, enjoyed successful 2010-11 seasons. Hjelle went back to Cedar Rapids, where he set a league record by winning 41 games and was named USHL Goaltender of the Year. That success led him back to the NCAA ranks, this time with Ohio State. Minnesota-Duluth, meanwhile, won 26 games that year – the last of which, of course, was a 3-2 overtime triumph over Michigan to win the national championship.
“I didn’t feel it was the right fit for me, so I decided to go back to Cedar Rapids,” recalled Hjelle, not dwelling upon his missed opportunity to win a national title. “That ended up being a really good year, and then I ended up at Ohio State, and I’m happy to be here.
“[At Cedar Rapids], it was just nice being in there every night, getting a chance to compete night in and night out. I developed a lot of confidence. The coach there trusted me a lot, and that showed on the ice.”
Hjelle also cites the fact that being away from Duluth – which was near his family in his hometown of International Falls, Minn. – allowed him to develop and mature as a person. Since arriving at Ohio State, Hjelle has now at last established himself as Osiecki’s trusted started. Prior to this past weekend’s series against Robert Morris – a 3-2 loss and a 2-2 tie – Hjelle allowed zero or one goals in eight consecutive appearances, allowing the Buckeyes to climb to the upper echelon of the CCHA standings, trailing only Notre Dame, Miami, and Western Michigan.
Now, on the year, Hjelle has a 1.46 goals-against average and .950 save percentage, both of which rank in the top three in the NCAA. In CCHA play, Hjelle boasts an astonishingly miniscule goals-against average of 0.59.
“I’m really comfortable out there,” admitted Hjelle. “Our forwards are getting back a lot on their rushes and taking away those odd-man opportunities, and our 'D' has done an unbelievable job, chasing down pucks, clearing out rebounds, blocking shots, and doing all the little stuff. It’s been a good team effort all the way around, and we communicate really well out there.”
Hjelle has started four consecutive games now – a pattern to which he grew accustomed during his second stint at Cedar Rapids. Now, for the first time, he’s established himself as a reliable No. 1 starter at the NCAA level as well.
Said Hjelle, “It’s basically the same either way. You juts have to prepare all week, try to get better every day, and show up to Friday, hope for the best, and hope the coach puts you in the next night. As a goalie, you have to be ready to be in there no matter what.”
The Buckeyes haven’t finished over .500 since the 2008-09 season, when a 23-win squad played in the NCAA tournament. Now, a significant test awaits Hjelle and his teammates – a rare scheduling quirk that sets up three consecutive meetings between Ohio State and Miami, a top 10 team in the Pairwise, over the next several weeks.
“We have the right guys here,” said Hjelle, who experienced postseason play at the WCHA Final Five as a sophomore. “We have character in our locker room. We’re here to win, we’re here to work hard, and the coaches have done an unbelievable job instilling that in us.”
And with Hjelle continuing to settle in as the Buckeyes’ top goaltender, those same coaches may just be sleeping easier, too.