Goaltending Battle Fuels Ferris' Run
by Courtney Lewis/CHN Reporter
After Taylor Nelson and Pat Nagle split Ferris State’s goaltending duties last season, coach Bob Daniels told them he wanted to settle on a No. 1 this year. They responded by making that choice difficult.
So much so that they’re still sharing the job.
Nelson and Nagle have pushed each other all season, in the process developing into a top-flight goaltending tandem.
“Anytime you’re in a position where you’re splitting time ... it helps a goalie to compete,” Nelson said. “When you always feel like you have to outdo the other one, do a little better, it helps you become a better goalie.
“At the same time, a guy wants to carry the load. But as long as we’re wining and keep going the way we are, it’s not a problem. It’s making me and Pat better goalies, and in the end, it’s making the team better.”
With two netminders who have been tough to beat and one of the stingiest defenses in the country playing in front of them, the Bulldogs (17-8-3, 11-6-3 CCHA) are enjoying their best season since Chris Kunitz’s days in Big Rapids.
Ferris State won 12 games last year, finished ninth in the CCHA and bowed out of the conference playoffs in the first round. The Bulldogs’ best record in the last five years was just above .500.
So Nelson said there’s a whole different atmosphere around the team this year. The Bulldogs are full of confidence and eying the postseason.
“The goal set out right from the get-go is to win it all, right?” Nelson said. “We want to make that tournament, win it all. No one’s making goals that we want to get to the second round of the playoffs.”
The Bulldogs started this season at an even better clip than in 2002-03, when Kunitz led them to the program’s only conference title and lone NCAA tournament bid. Their best first half in 30 years included a 10-game unbeaten streak and a perfect record at home. The team cooled off in January — when it played 7-of-10 games away from Ewigleben Ice Arena — dropping three straight at one point and totaling more losses (5) than in the whole first semester (3).
But Ferris State is still third in the CCHA standings and ranked 11th nationally.
The Bulldogs’ play in their own zone has been key all season. Their 2.25 goals against per game ranks second in the conference and fifth in the country.
Nelson and Nagle have been a staunch last line of defense.
Nagle, a junior from Bloomfield, Mich., is seventh in the country with a 2.10 GAA, and his .926 save percentage ranks eighth. He has posted an 8-6-1 record.
Nelson, a sophomore, is 9-2-2. The Regina, Saskatchewan native is in the top 20 in both GAA (2.36) and save percentage (.920).
“When you have two goalies playing how they have been and both getting along well — they don’t mind splitting; they’re the first people to congratulate each other after a good game — that’s maybe been the biggest part of our success right now,” junior defenseman Zach Redmond said.
“They’re definitely keeping us happy.”
Nelson played both games one weekend in December, and Nagle has had the edge the last month, backstopping the Bulldogs to a pair of wins over Notre Dame and a split with Michigan. But they were back to alternating last weekend, with Nelson in net for a shootout win over Ohio State.
Nelson said the two play similar styles, and they’re comfortable pointing out things they notice in each other’s game.
“We have a good relationship,” Nelson said. “You might be on teams where you’re not a big fan of the other guy, and that makes it awkward almost. But when you have a guy you like working with, it makes a world of difference.”
Redmond said the blueliners’ confidence has been boosted by knowing they’re consistently getting solid goaltending behind them.
“It gives you as a defenseman a level of comfort knowing there’s someone back there who can bail you out, knowing you can take a chance that might pay off and lead to a goal,” he said.
Nelson said one thing the Bulldogs have really worked on is goalie-to-defenseman transitions, and they’ve been breaking the puck out quickly.
Ferris State was seventh in the conference in scoring defense last year but has been near the top all this season.
“We’ve always had a pretty good defensive scheme; it’s just a matter of staying disciplined and everybody buying into the system,” Redmond said. “This year everybody seems really responsible in the defensive zone.
“It started working early on, and then it became contagious almost, because the better we were in the D zone, the more we won.”
The defensive unit had little turnover this season — it lost senior Evan Case and gained sophomore transfer Brett Wysopal. So while the Bulldogs skated four freshmen last season, all of this year’s blueliners have at least a year of experience.
Just as the goalies have given the blueliners confidence, Nelson said the sound defense has bolstered his play.
“Even last year I had confidence in the defensive corps,” Nelson said. “But the fact that they’ve been together a couple years really instills a little more confidence in your own play when you know you have guys who are going to bail you out.
“And it’s not just the defensemen; it’s everyone. It’s the forwards coming back and backchecking with a purpose. Everyone sets out to win games.”
At the other end, the Bulldogs have been almost as strong.
Ferris State is currently the second-highest scoring team in the the CCHA with a 3.21 goals-per-game average. Senior winger Blair Riley leads the team with a 17-13-30 scoring line, and senior forwards Cody Chupp and Casey Haines are next with 24 and 23 points, respectively. Redmond (5-16-21) and Wysopal (3-13-16) are also right there in the scoring mix.
“Going into every game, usually we have the thought process of ‘Take care of our zone first. If we’re patient, we’ll get chances on offense, but take care of our zone,’ ” Redmond said. “We have a couple lines really buzzing up front, too. So we’re just trying to stay disciplined back there.”
With eight games left, Ferris State sits 12 points behind Miami and just two back of Michigan State — and the Bulldogs and Spartans still have to meet in a home-and-home series later this month.
After hurting for wins in the last three weeks, the Bulldogs will try to get back on track before they head into the playoffs, where they’re looking to make some noise.
“We definitely have our eyes on the tournament right now,” Redmond said. “We definitely want to make it to (Joe Louis Arena, which hosts the CCHA semifinals and final); we haven’t been there in way too long. And I think this is only the second time we’ve been ranked since I’ve been here, so we’d like to stay ranked.
“And we’d like to make a name for our school, even, because it’s been a while since we’ve been on the map. And we want to be taken seriously.”
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