Chris Nell delivered an impressive statement Saturday night.
The Bowling Green sophomore reminded everyone he’s still one of the best goalies in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
He stopped 31 shots to help the Falcons to a 3-1 win over Minnesota State and a split of the series for the league lead.
Nell was sharp from start to finish, but he made two big-time saves to keep game scoreless in the first period, and another key stop on Maverick standout Teddy Blueger in the second period. He made 14 saves in the third period, although most of the shots weren’t in prime scoring areas.
“Chris played really well,” BG coach Chris Bergeron said following Saturday’s win.
Nell, who plays with poise and makes tough saves look easier than they really are, leads the WCHA with a 1.33 goals-against average and a .933 save percentage. He ranks sixth nationally in goals-against and eighth in save percentage.
But Nell had stopped just 66 of 78 shots in his last three games before Saturday, including stopping just 16 of 21 shots in a 5-1 loss at Minnesota State Friday.
Nell, however, had been put in difficult positions of late because of turnovers and defensive mistakes.
In Friday’s loss, the Mavericks scored on three breakaways and two defensive coverage breakdowns by the Falcons.
Nell has started 25 of BG’s 31 games this season, including nine straight and 18 of the last 20. The only two games Nell didn’t start in that 20-game span were the result of a head injury.
“He’s established himself as one of the top goalies in the league, our number one goalie. It was an easy decision,” Bergeron said when asked if he considered not starting Nell Saturday.
The Falcons remained in the hunt for the league championship with Saturday’s victory. Minnesota State is first in the WCHA with 31 points, followed by BG and Michigan Tech with 29.
Had BG lost Saturday, it would have been third in the WCHA — six points behind the Minnesota State, two behind Tech and just one ahead of fourth-place Ferris.
“(Nell) was great,” said senior forward and assistant captain Mark Cooper, who scored the Falcons’ first two goals in the game. “He’s been our best player all year. When we can support him with three goals, we have a good chance to win.”
The Falcons are 12-0-1 this season when scoring three or more goals.
POLL: The Falcons remained 19th in this week’s U.S. College Hockey Online poll announced Monday.
BG received 119 points, up from 115 a week ago.
The Falcons are 16-9-6 overall and 12-5-5 in the WCHA.
Minnesota State moved up one spot to 17th in the poll. Michigan Tech climbed one spot to 14th with its home sweep of Lake Superior.
POWER PLAY: After going 0 of 5 Friday, the Falcon power play scored for a 3-1 lead Saturday with 5:29 remaining in the second period. Cooper scored on the rebound of a Stephen Baylis shot after Pierre-Luc Mercier made a nice play to set up Baylis.
“If we’re playing well, we can use the power play to our advantage,” Cooper said.
PK: The Falcons killed off three of the Mavericks’ four power plays in the game and were 9 of 11 in the series.
DOMINANT: The line of sophomore left wing Mitch McLain, sophomore center Tyler Spezia and Cooper on right wing was a force throughout Saturday’s game.
The three combined for 10 shots in the game, including a team-best five by Cooper and four more by McLain. Spezia and McLain each blocked three shots, while Cooper blocked one. Spezia won 14 of his 25 faceoffs.
Spezia returned to the lineup Saturday after sitting out Game 1 because he was sick.
He has seven goals and four assists, and an on-ice rating of +5 in 30 games. He also is one of the team’s best penalty killers.
Spezia took the place of junior Kevin Dufour, who was a healthy scratch.
Cooper is one of BG’s assistant captains.
“Mark knows, that as a senior and a captain, he’s got to step up in situations like this,” Bergeron said. “And he did.”
WILLING TO PAY THE PRICE: The Falcons blocked 27 of Minnesota State’s 83 total attempted shots in Saturday’s game.
In addition to McLain and Spezia, Chris Pohlkamp, Baylis and Sean Walker each had blocked three shots for the Falcons. Connor McDonald, Adam Smith, Shane Bednard, Mark Friedman added two blocks each.
MISSED CHANCES: The Mavericks played well Friday and had a quick start Saturday, but they were unable to score until the second period to tie the game. In addition to Nell playing well, Minnesota State missed the net on a number of quality scoring chances during the opening period.
“We had some chances to get off to a lead, and we didn’t. Against a team like that, that defends the way they do, if they get the lead, you’re going to have long night.”
The Falcons eventually took the lead on Cooper’s first goal with 1:38 remaining in the first period. Minnesota State goalie Cole Huggins, who made 21 saves in the game, mishandled the puck behind his net. Cooper gained control, moved in front and tucked the puck into the open net.
“The difference between winning and losing games like that are pretty minute,” Hastings said, referring to a turnover for BG’s first goal and a penalty giving BG a power play for its second goal.
WCHA: The loss to BG Saturday prevented Minnesota State from taking command of the WCHA race. The Mavericks are bidding for a second straight regular-season WCHA championship. They also won the playoff title last season. They were the coaches pick to win the league this season.
“We knew this would be tough,” Minnesota State senior defenseman Jon Jutzi said. “We knew this would be a huge weekend. We’re disappointed to lose the Saturday game after winning Friday because there was an opportunity there.”
Minnesota State finishes its league season with series at Alabama-Huntsville and Alaska-Anchorage, and at home against Bemidji State.
5 ON 6: The Mavericks pulled Huggins for the sixth attacker with about 4:24 remaining in the game. BG held a 3-1 lead at the time and did a solid job overall of not allowing point-blank shots during that span.
“It’s very similar to a penalty-kill-type situation, except you can’t ice (the puck),” Bergeron said on how the team defends the 5 on 6 situation. The Falcons work on that situation in practice.
“But we have no problem icing the puck,” Bergeron added. “We just make the play. If the play is to ice it, then let’s ice it. We’ve done as good a job all year for that long of a time against a really good team. I was happy with the way we handled that.”
The Falcons relieved Minnesota State’s pressure by clearing the puck, although they weren’t able to score an empty-net goal.
“You just have to be more aware because there’s an extra guy out there, making sure I’m checking over my shoulder,” Nell said.
NEXT: The Falcons have just one game this weekend, hosting Miami in a nonleague game Friday at 7:07.
The RedHawks are 11-13-3 overall and 6-10-2 in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, but they posted a split with St. Cloud over the weekend. Miami was a 3-2 winner in Game 2 after St. Cloud scored a 5-1 victory in Game 1. St. Cloud was ranked third last week.
The game is the back end of a nontraditional home and home series between the teams. Miami posted a 2-1 win over BG in Oxford Jan. 16, scoring the winning goal with just seconds left.