Chris Nell is starting to regain last season’s form.
The Bowling Green goalie is playing well again after a difficult start to the season.
He has a 2.04 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage in his last 16 games, going into this weekend’s series at 18th-ranked Minnesota State.
The teams are tied for third place in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association with 26 points, seven behind second-place and 20th-ranked Michigan Tech. But BG has played two more games than both Tech and Minnesota State.
Nell has been outstanding in his last two starts, including a 17-save performance in a 3-0 non-league victory Dec. 30 over the Rochester Institute of Technology at the Huntington Center in Toledo.
The junior followed that with 25 saves during a 2-1 loss Thursday to No. 17 and WCHA leader Bemidji State in the Slater Family Ice Arena.
“I feel good about the way I’m playing,” said Nell, who is 9-6-1 during those last 16 games. “Towards the end of the first half, I thought I was putting my game back to where it was last year.”
Nell had a superb sophomore season, playing in 37 games. He earned first-team All-WCHA recognition with a 1.31 goals-against and a .930 save percentage, both single-season records. He was ninth nationally in goals-against and 10th in save percentage.
But Nell’s world was shattered when his dad, Rick, died unexpectedly Sept. 12 — only 21 days after school began and just 19 days before the Falcons’ exhibition contest. Rick Nell regularly attended his son’s games, both home and away.
Nell stopped just 81 of 96 shots in his first four games, posting a 3.73 goals-against and an .843 save percentage. His season started to turn at Miami Oct. 28-29 when he stopped 31 of 34 shots, including 17 saves in a 4-1 win in the series finale.
“It’s been a tough year for me statistically and stuff,” Nell said. “Towards the end of the first half, I was back to putting a 60-minute game together. The first part of the season, there wasn’t that full 60, whether that be the focus or something was just off where my game wasn’t translating into a full 60-minute game.”
Nell’s biggest challenge on the ice has been eliminating soft goals, the pucks that go in on shots he should probably stop.
“Toward the end of the first half, that was the difference … getting that focus back,” Nell said. “For me, it’s been that goal, that one shot, that’s found it’s way into the back of the net all year.”
The shutout of RIT enabled Nell to become BG’s career leader in shutouts with eight. The 6-foot-3, 184-pounder entered the season tied for the record with Andrew Hammond (2009-13) and Tyler Masters (1999-2003).
Nell also is BG’s career leader in goals-against (2.15) and save percentage (.919).
“He looks like he’s making more big saves and making those saves look kind of ho-hum, like he has in the past,” BG coach Chris Bergeron said of Nell’s recent play. “The Bemidji State game, he looked really good. He got tested a bunch. He made some good saves, and kept us in that game. He looks like himself.”
Nell played well overall as a freshman. He appeared in 13 games, starting 12. He had a 6-4-2 record, to go along with a 2.32 goals-against and a .917 save percentage that included three shutouts.
Nell has started 18 of BG’s 25 games this season, and appeared 19 games overall. He has a 2.51 goals-against and an .894 save percentage.
“If I have a .700 or a .940 save percentage, that’s not going to change my every-day approach at the rink,” Nell said. “You can’t let that affect your game. If you look at statistics on a daily basis, you’re worried about letting a goal in and how that’s going to ruin your statistics. You can’t play like that.
“You want to have good statistics because it means you’re playing well. You can’t let that dictate how you play,” Nell added.
Nell is competing with freshman Ryan Bednard and senior Tomas Sholl for the No. 1 job. Nell and Bednard have split BG’s last five two-game series, with Nell in goal for the first game and Bednard starting the second game.
Bednard has a 2.04 goals-against and a .914 save percentage in his last five starts. He made 17 saves Saturday in a 4-2 win over Bemidji in the SFIA.
“It’s good competition between the three of us,” Nell said. “All three of us can play, and it shows in practice every day. All three of us push each other to improve, and to play and compete at the highest level every day.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Nell added. “We’ve all learned from each other. We all play a different style and it’s cool to say, ‘What do you do in this situation?’ We learn from each other.”
Nell, who is majoring in marketing and has a grade-point average of just under 3.0, could turn pro after the season, electing to skip his senior season. He was one of the most sought-after free agents last season before returned to BG.
“I’m approaching it just like last year,” Nell said. “I’m focused on playing hockey right now and making sure my game is where it needs to be and leaving the (NHL) for a later date. All I’m worried about is playing well here and making sure we can bring home a championship.”