By Shane Frederick email@example.com
The Mankato Free Press
---- — MANKATO — When Johnny McInnis wants to take few minutes to work on his shot, he seeks out Stephon Williams.
McInnis, the Minnesota State men's hockey captain, knows that the sophomore goaltender won't give him any easy looks or soft goals. In fact, McInnis will know how well he's shooting by the way his teammate reacts if and when the puck hits the back of the net.
“He's absolutely competitive,” McInnis said. “Anytime a goal goes past him, he's not happy about it. Even in our warmups, he gets mad about it, and that's a good thing.”
An empty net does keep Williams, last season's Western Collegiate Hockey Association rookie of the year and first-team selection, a happy goalie.
"I look at it the same, whether it's in practice or a game," said Williams, who is will start the Mavericks' home-opener tonight against Connecticut. "If the puck's in the net, I take that to heart."
With hundreds of pucks being shot every day in practice, not every goalie takes that approach. Williams is not just a gamer.
“The good thing with him is that he doesn't shut it off and turn it back on, as far as his competitive nature goes,” Mavericks coach Mike Hastings said, “I never feel as a coach that I have to continually motivate him.”
Williams said he wants his teammates to want him between the pipes.
"Our whole mentality is to try to be better," he said, "to try to make each other better and to try to make each other accountable. We play out rebounds on every play, even if it's four, five shots, just like a game. I try to keep that competitive edge high."
Williams traces his competitive streak to his youth-hockey days in Fairbanks, Alaska.
“Growing up, I always thought that the way you practice is the way you play the game,” he said. “I didn't have the easiest route (to college hockey). Being from Alaska made it a little more difficult. Every day I go out there wanting to earn my spot.”
After splitting time with senior Phil Cook to start the season, Williams earned his starting spot in sixth week of his rookie year when he led the Mavericks to a surprising sweep at Wisconsin. He's started every game since then.
He finished last season with a 21-12-2 record and a 2.00 goals-against average. His 1.93 goals-against in conference play was the lowest in the WCHA, and his .924 save percentage ranked second on Minnesota State's single-season list.
He also did that while playing hurt.
Williams said he quietly battled through a torn labrum in his hip throughout his freshman year. While the injury was painful, he learned that he couldn't do further damage, so he opted to hold off surgery until after the season and rehabbed over the summer in the Twin Cities and Mankato.
“Our staff did really good job of making sure I was capable of playing every day (last season) — in practice and in games,” Williams said.
Getting healthy was just one of the positive things to happen over the summer. The other was getting drafted.
The New York Islanders selected Williams in the fourth round of the NHL draft. He was unable to attend the Islanders' prospect camp, as some of his MSU teammates did with other teams, but his focus was always on being ready for his second year of college hockey.
"He just continues to mature," Hastings said.