SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. — Chris Nell’s return was impressive Friday night.
The sophomore stopped 24 shots to help 16th-ranked Bowling Green to a 3-1 win over Lake Superior in a Western Collegiate Hockey Association game.
Nell didn’t play in the Falcons’ last two games, the result of a head injury suffered Dec. 30 during the second period of a 1-0 loss to Western Michigan. The 6-foot-3, 184-pounder then sat out both of BG’s games against Clarkson last weekend.
“I felt good. It was nice to get into a rhythm right away and face some easy shots from the outside,” said Nell, who ranks third nationally with a 1.40 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage in 18 games. He’s 9-2-5 overall, and leads the WCHA in goals-against and save percentage.
Nell had started nine straight games at the time he was hurt. He’s started 17 of BG’s 23 games this season.
“He looked good,” BG coach Chris Bergeron said. “He made some big saves. Like Chris does, he kind of makes hard saves look easier than they really are.”
Nell’s goaltending was complemented by a solid defensive effort by the Falcons, who allowed just the 25 shots and only a handful of quality scoring chances. BG is fifth nationally and first in the WCHA for the fewest goals allowed (1.87 per game).
The Falcons had only a handful of turnovers. The BG defense corps did a good job clearing rebounds and the front of the net.
Adam Smith, Mark Friedman, Sean Walker, Connor McDonald, Jordan Ernst and Chris Pohkamp played defense for the Falcons.
“We played really well defensively. We did a good job of keeping them to the outside,” Nell said.
In 13 league games this season, Nell is 8-1-4 with a 1.39 goals-against and a .944 save percentage.
The Lakers’ only goal cut the Falcons’ lead to 2-1 with 15:31 remaining in the game. BG’s coverage in the defensive zone broke down and Ryan Rentz capitalized, winning a puck along the right-wing boards and then skating in front of the net for the goal.
The goal spoiled Nell’s bid for his seventh career shutout and fourth shutout of the season.
He needs just one more shutout to tie BG’s career record shared by Tyler Masters (1999-2003) and Andrew Hammond (2009-2013). No other Falcon goalie has more than four.
Nell already shares BG’s single-season record of three, joining Masters (2000-01), Jimmy Spratt (2008-09), Hammond (2012-13) and Tommy Burke (2013-14) with the record.
Burke is a senior this season. Spratt is BG’s director of hockey operations.
Junior Tomas Sholl was Nell’s backup as Burke didn’t make the trip to Lake Superior.
Burke allowed too many soft goals in the two games against Clarkson. The Falcons posted a 6-3 win in the series opener, but Clarkson was a 3-2 win in Game 2.
Sholl hasn’t played in a game this season, although he stopped 7 of 9 shots in the final 29:57 of BG’s exhibition contest against the University of Toronto Oct. 10. He has a 2.65 goals-against and .900 save percentage in 17 career games.
Sholl’s last start and game action came Jan. 10, 2015 at home in a 4-4 tie against Alaska (Fairbanks). He stopped just 6 of 8 shots and was replaced by Burke after only16:38. The Falcons earned the tie after trailing 2-0 and 4-1.
Burke finished last season as BG’s No. 1 goalie and started this season in the same spot, but has a 2.88 goals-against and an .896 save percentage this season, posting a 4-3 record in seven games.