Bowling Green enters the Western Collegiate Hockey Association Playoffs with momentum and confidence.
Chris Nell’s goaltending is one of the major reasons why.
The junior has posted three straight shutouts, helping the Falcons to a win over Mercyhurst and a regular-season ending sweep of Alabama-Huntsville.
The Falcons entertain Ferris State in a best-of-3 Western Collegiate Hockey Association quarterfinal series Friday, Saturday, and, if necessary, Sunday in the Slater Family Ice Arena. Faceoff is 7:07 p.m.
Nell made 71 saves in a 7-0, 2-0 sweep of UAH last weekend and 22 saves in a 3-0 win over Mercyhurst Feb. 11. In addition to the 93 shots, the Falcons allowed far too many quality scoring chances, odd-man rushes and breakaways. But Nell remained poised under fire, turning difficult saves into routine ones. He has a 1.49 goals-against average and a .946 save percentage in his 11 games since returning from the Christmas break.
“Chris Nell has been unbelievable,” BG junior Tyler Spezia said. “He’s just feeling it. It’s the kid we got accustomed to last year, maybe even better, just the way he’s tracking the puck, and how calm, cool and collected he is back there. We’re confident back there, and it makes a whole world of difference for us moving forward.”
“It really helps the overall team confidence,” Falcon coach Chris Bergeron said of Nell. “He looks like he’s on it. He has that look about him. You can tell the vibe on the bench, the vibe around the team is pretty confident because of him.”
Nell’s school-record scoreless streak stands at 207:31. The last goal allowed by Nell came Feb. 4 at home against Northern Michigan, which scored a 5-on-5 goal at 11:18 of the second period. The 6-foot-3, 184-pounder already holds BG’s career record for goals-against average (2.08), save percentage (.922) and shutouts (11). His four shutouts this season are a single-season Falcon record.
“I like how I’m tracking the puck right now,” Nell said. “I’m doing a good job of making sure I see pucks. I’m not getting myself in bad spots and not having to scramble as much as I was at the start of the year. I’ve simplified my game a lot, and that’s the main reason I like where my game is at right now.”
Nell’s strong second half came after a difficult first half off the ice for him and his family. His dad, Rick, died unexpectedly Sept. 12. Nell’s parents, Rick and Nina, regularly attended their son’s games at home and on the road. Nina Nell remains a familiar face at BG’s games.
“How do you get over something like that? You don’t,” Bergeron said. “But it is has sunk in to the point where he’s figured out what the new normal is for him and his mom. Now, he’s back in his routine. That’s kind of the way 20-year-old people are. They rebound. What you’re seeing as of late, the second half of the year, is more of what we expected the whole year.
“When you get thrown into a situation like he got thrown, you just can’t be right. There’s no way,” Bergeron added. “What you’re seeing is Chris is playing to the level he expected to play at all year long. It took him some time to find that level.”
Nell was a first-team All-WCHA honoree last season, posting a 1.91 goals-against and a .930 save percentage in 37 games. But this season, he stopped just 76 of 91 shots in his first four games. He’s steadily improved since.
“Being around his teammates has helped,” Bergeron said. The Falcons even took a bus to the Green Bay, Wisconsin area for Rick Nell’s funeral and to support their teammate. “He sees his mom pretty much every weekend which has helped. Sometimes for a 20-, 21- 22-year-old, it’s hard to admit you’re vulnerable, you’re insecure about what’s going on, what has happened. Chris has wrapped his arms around that, knowing it’s normal to feel the way he’s feeling. He’s leaned on people around him, and that’s been a stabilizing thing. Chris has found a little bit of a comfort level with his mom, and with his teammates, and it’s showing in his play.”
All of Nell’s shutouts this season have come in the last 11 games.
“I don’t think he’s doing anything different,” Bergeron said of Nell’s play during the second half. “He’s been reassured his game is good enough, don’t try to reinvent anything, don’t change, What you’re dealing with mentally is natural. It’s real. It’s unfortunate. You’ve got to figure out what the new normal looks and feels like, and he’s done that.”
Now, BG is looking for Nell to continue to play well during the WCHA playoffs. He has a 2.19 goals-against and a .912 save percentage in 29 games this season. He’s started 28 of BG’s 36 games.
“He didn’t change anything,” Bergeron said. “He stuck to it. He says he’s simplified (his game), but to deal with what he dealt with mentally and figure out what that new normal looks and feels like, it just takes time. And it took him some time. Now, he’s kind of got it figured out mentally.”