Kielly, Clarkson Rise Together
Before Jake Kielly even arrived at Clarkson, his future coach, Casey Jones, knew exactly what he had coming. Kielly was a proven winner at every level, and had the ability to take his fledgling squad to new levels.
Fast forward two years and that is exactly what Kielly is doing for the Golden Knights, who have won eight in a row and are 12-3-1 overall.
"This year has been a lot of fun," Kielly said. "We all do a lot of work in the summer and it is not only showing from the personal level, but the team level. Right now, we are playing great team hockey and I am getting a little attention as a by-product of that."
Said Jones, "The thing that people always fail to talk about in terms of goaltenders, is whether they win. His NAHL team was right on the cusp and his USHL team won a title. He has a history of winning, so we are hoping he carries it on for us."
As Clarkson meandered through a tough early season schedule, Kielly flourished. In a sense, Clarkson was a developing squad looking for an identity. It was hardly the team it is now, and needed its goaltender to bail it out in key moments.
In the first weekend of the year, in wins against Michigan and Penn State, Kielly made big save after big save. He gave up just one goal on 68 shots against two teams that are now in the top 10 of offense nationally. The hot start continued the next weekend, as Kielly picked up a win and a tie against a tough Western Michigan team, on the road.
"(Kielly's) performances early were key," said Jones. "We knew we had a good goalie and we had a really good D. We knew that was the backbone of our team and it was then. We knew we were going to need to find layers of scoring. The thing was, we were playing really tough competition and I think it helped expedite the process, while Jake gave us a shot."
These were all well and good but for the Golden Knights to truly take the next step, which it had seemingly been on the doorstep on for three seasons, it needed for those results to keep coming.
Another win against Providence came, but a setback the night before against Lowell was cause for concern.
A pair of losses at Minnesota would prove to be the ultimate wake-up call that Kielly and the Golden Knights needed. It was a weekend where Clarkson believed it could get more out of, in 3-1 and 2-1 losses, but it never materialized.
Coincidentally, Kielly hails from Eden Prairie, Minn., a mere 20 minutes from the UM campus. Considering how well the Gophers usually do with kids in its local region, for Kielly to head off to Clarkson was a serious coup for Jones.
But why would a kid head to Clarkson?
"It is a little bit of a long story," Kielly said. "The assistant coach (Josh Hauge) drafted me in the USHL when I was in the ninth grade. When he made the switch over to Clarkson, he gave me a call pretty quick. I went out to visit the campus, I loved it and I literally committed the next day. I just knew it was the right fit for me."
In the eight games since Minnesota, Kielly has three shutouts and has given up just 10 goals. In six ECAC league games, Clarkson is 6-0-0 and has quickly become the favorite.
The difference is not just Kielly, but Clarkson's ability to grow on his back and develop into a difficult team to play against. It has also developed a scoring threat that few teams in the ECAC can match. The Golden Knights have largely controlled possession and have allowed a meager 23 shots against per game. In the eight games it has outscored its opponents, 33-10.
Kielly not only makes the saves he should, but he makes the key ones. Although Kielly struggled to track the puck early in Saturday's Friendship Four final against Providence, and allowed a first period goal he probably shouldn't have, the sophomore recovered and made many big saves after. This allowed Clarkson to score four unanswered and go on to win the tournament. It marked the second consecutive year Kielly and the Golden Knights have won a Thanksgiving weekend tournament.
Kielly has played every minute of every game for Clarkson. He has a national-best 1.44 goals against average and a save percentage of .947. He had decent numbers last year and was expected to improve this year, but the jumps are large.
"Overall, game-to-game, we play so much better defensively," Kielly said. "Last year in a weekend we would play one really good game and one OK game. But this year the guys are dominant and expect to win every night. This is the attitude that we have and the chip on our shoulder — we are here to win."