HUNTSVILLE, Alabama — Chris Nell rebounded from a disappointing performance with a record-setting effort Saturday night.
The sophomore made 24 saves Saturday to help Bowling Green to a 5-0 win over Alabama-Huntsville.
The shutout was the seventh of Nell’s career, enabling him to tie Tyler Masters (1999-2003) and Andrew Hammond (2009-13) for the school record, even though he’s played in just 46 games.
Nell also has four shutouts this season, besting his three shutouts last season that tied the single season school record. Masters (2000-01), Jimmy Spratt (2008-09), Hammond (2012-13) and Tommy Burke (2013-14) remain in second place for the season mark. Burke is a senior this season, while Spratt is BG’s director of hockey operations.
Nell nearly shut out Alaska (Fairbanks) Feb. 20, but the Nanooks scored with only 8:38 remaining in BG’s 4-1 victory. He also shut out Lake Superior in regulation Jan. 9 before the Lakers scored the game’s only goal in overtime.
“That’s awesome,” Nell said of the records. “It’s always nice to see your name with the greats that who have come through the program. But I wouldn’t be able to do it without the guys in front of me the last two years. They’ve played well in front of me and have made some great plays to clear the puck, block shots when it looked like I might give up a goal.”
Nell played well from start to finish against UAH, one night after allowing six goals in 19 shots during the Falcons’ 7-5 loss. Four of the six goals Nell allowed were on breakaways and odd-man rushes, but he didn’t play as well as he has most of the season.
“For how many shots I had and how many goals went in, that’s not acceptable at this level,” Nell said. “I really didn’t give my team a chance to win. I let too many in last night, and there a couple of saves I thought I should have made, that would have changed the momentum of the game.”
Nell had nine saves in each of the first two periods Saturday, and six in the third period.
“Chris was sharp all night,” BG coach Chris Bergeron said. “He looked on top of it all night, not that he wasn’t going to give up a goal, but he looked like he was on top of his game the whole time. That was a good answer for him.”
Nell is second in the WCHA with a 1.90 goals-against average and first with a .930 save percentage. He’s on pace to set the single-season BG record in both categories. Nell is eighth nationally in goals-against and 13th in save percentage. He was in the top five nationally in both entering the UAH series.
Nell has played in 33 games this season, posting a 16-9-6 record.
“The key for his progress and maturity and growth is to not have that game where he has to respond or at least it’s one game in 10,” Bergeron said. “Unfortunately, the second half of the year, there’s been a couple. They haven’t been bad games, but there’s a goal here, a goal there, and then he answers back with a really solid effort.
“He’s a sophomore, a guy learning,” Bergeron added. “He shows up every day, but he’s not a guy who gives up six goals very often.”
And when Nell has an infrequent bad game or allows a soft goal or two, he often is perfect or close to it in his next start. The athletic 6-foot-3, 184-pounder has been the Falcons’ best and most consistent player this season.
Nell is BG’s career leader in goals-against (2.01) and save percentage (.926).
“He’s been our rock the whole year,” BG sophomore forward Brandon Hawkins said. “He’s one of those guys you get to him one night, he’s going to bounce back the next. You can’t get to him that often.”
Nell’s best save Saturday came when he stacked his pads to his left to make a brilliant stop on a breakaway with BG holding a 2-0 lead in the second period. He even reached his left pad in the air a bit, similar to the way former National Hockey Leaguer Dominik Hasek often did.
The breakaway came after UAH goalie Carmine Guerriero passed the puck ahead to catch BG on a line change.
“That was completely reactionary and a little bit of luck,” Nell said. “(Stacking the pads) was the first thing that came to my mind. I lifted my leg a little bit, and he put it right in there. Not the most conventional save, but it worked.”
The breakaway was one of only a few quality scoring chances allowed by BG in the game.
“We were a little shaky at first, but we responded well,” Nell said. “We didn’t give up too many chances throughout the game. As the night went on, we played sound defensively.”
Bergeron said the coaching staff considered starting Tomas Sholl in goal Saturday, but chose to go with Nell. Sholl, a junior, hasn’t played in a game this season after stopping 7 of 9 shots in 29:57 during BG’s Canadian exhibition Oct. 3.
Sholl’s last start and game action came Jan. 10, 2015 at home in a 4-4 tie against Alaska (Fairbanks). He has a 2.65 goals-againt and a .900 save percentage in 17 career games.
“We did (consider starting Sholl), but the focus was on having Chris feel good about his game going into next week versus giving him rest,” Bergeron said.
The Falcons host Bemidji State in a WCHA quarterfinal series next weekend.
Nell has started 32 of BG’s 38 games this season, including 16 straight and 25 of the last 27 games. The only two games he didn’t start were against Clarkson Jan. 2-3 when he was recovering from a head injury.
“We didn’t think he was overworked last night,” Bergeron said. “Last night didn’t go the way he wanted, and having a bad taste in his mouth going into next week wouldn’t be the best for him. He’s our number one goalie, and why create something that’s not there in terms of a goaltending controversy. I felt our team was going to respond tonight, and (Nell) made some good times early. He played really well.
“This had nothing to do with (Sholl),” Bergeron added. “This was all about what we thought was best for (Nell), and we thought it was getting him back in there and moving forward.”