The mental part of Chris Nell’s game is beginning to complement the physical part of his usually reliable goaltending.
Now, the Bowling Green sophomore is looking to play consistently well this season.
He’s fifth nationally in both goals-against average (1.14) and save percentage (.957) entering this weekend’s series against Lake Superior.
The Falcons, 4-2-1 overall and 1-1 in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, host the Lakers (2-6, 0-2) Friday at 7:37 p.m. and Saturday at 7:07 p.m. BG is ranked 14th nationally at U.S. College Hockey Online.
Nell played well overall as a freshman with a 2.32 goals-against and a .917 save percentage in 13 games, but his season was two distinct halves.
He was 5-0 with a 1.60 goals-against and .945 save percentage in five games during the first half, but posted a 2.80 goals-against and an .868 save after Christmas.
“I really focused on the mental part of the game this summer,” said Nell, whose record this season is 2-1-1. “I tried to be consistent with that, to make sure I didn’t get too high or too low. I’m taking it game by game. Last year, I had a lot of ups and downs.”
Quality goaltending from Tommy Burke, a senior this fall, and Nell’s inconsistency led to Burke emerging as BG’s No. 1 goalie down the stretch last season. Now, Nell and Burke are again battling for the top spot in the net.
“I want to stay consistent throughout the whole year with the mental side of my game,” said Nell, who is coming off a 25-save shutout Sunday in a 2-0 win at Alaska-Anchorage.
Nell’s improved mental approach started over the summer and has carried over to practice this fall. Of course, the 6-foot-1, 184-pounder isn’t the first or the last player to deal with inconsistency during his rookie season.
“I wanted to improve every day, but, mentally, I was out of it in practice sometimes,” Nell said. “This year, I’ve been controlling the distractions outside the rink with school and whatever is going on outside the rink.
“When I’ve been at the rink, I’ve left everything else at the door. I’m not worrying about stuff I can’t control. Last year, it got into my head when I gave up different goals or outside things. A lot of distractions got into my head and threw me off mentally.”
The shutout at Anchorage was the fifth of Nell’s career, the third-most in school history — even though he’s started just 16 games.
Tyler Masters (1999-2003) and Andrew Hammond (2010-13) share the BG record of seven. Four goalies have four career shutouts each — Jordan Sigalet (1973-77), Mike Liut (1973-77), Al Sarachman (1973-77) and Terry Miskolczi (1970-73).
Burke and current BG director of hockey operations Jimmy Spratt are two of the five Falcon goalies with three career shutouts.
Nell’s allowed just seven goals in five games this season, including a 2-0 shutout of Ohio State in the Ice Arena Oct. 10.
“The first half of last year, his numbers were good, but I didn’t see him as confident and as on top of it as I’ve seen him this year,” Falcon coach Chris Bergeron said. “He looks on top of his game. He looks very confident.”
Nell agreed with Bergeron’s assessment he is more confident than he was at any point last season. The 6-foot-4, 181-pounder came to BG with high expectations after two seasons with the United States (Junior) Hockey League’s Chicago Steel.
Nell had a 3.18 goals-against and a .910 average in 43 games with the Steel during the 2013-14 season.
His first BG start resulted in a 20-save shutout at Alabama-Huntsville Oct. 17, 2014.
“This year, I felt really good about my offseason, where my game had progressed throughout the summer,” Nell said. “I came in with that confidence. To play well at this level, you have to have a little bit of confidence.
“As soon as you doubt yourself, that’s when the mental side of it starts to go haywire. You really have to come to the rink with a little bit of confidence.”
Nell, who turned 21 in September, likes the way he’s playing.
“I really like how I’m staying calm and collected, no matter the situation on the ice,” Nell said. “I’m not finding myself having to scramble a lot. I’m doing a good job of being in the right spots, and staying calm and relaxed.
“I’m tracking the puck really well,” Nell added. “I have to keep doing the little things well.”
Now, Nell is striving to play consistently well as BG hopes to contend for WCHA regular-season and playoff championships, and an NCAA playoff berth.
“I put in the work this summer to bring my game my one step above of last season,” Nell said. “Now, I need to do that on a daily basis. I’ve felt really good so far. I need to keep that going.”