Ferris State Rides 'Hot Hand' of Senior Goaltender to NCAAs
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
Shortly after 2012 began, the Ferris State Bulldogs enjoyed a dominant 14 game unbeaten streak, and it was senior goaltender Taylor Nelson who started a dozen times during that stretch — en route, of course, to coach Bob Daniels' team securing the CCHA regular season championship.
But the last time we saw Nelson on the ice, the Regina, Sask., native had just been beaten by Bowling Green freshman Dan DeSalvo, who completed a hat-trick in overtime of a deciding game three to stun the CCHA's No. 1 seed in the first round of the CCHA playoffs.
Certainly, it's been a long 12 days for Nelson, who surrendered 11 goals in that wild three-game series against Bowling Green — a stark contrast to the senior netminder's season-long performance, which earned him a spot on the All-CCHA First Team over Michigan's Hobey Baker candidate Shawn Hunwick.
Now, on Friday at the NCAA Midwest Regional in Green Bay, Nelson and his teammates — who built their entire season of success around strong defense — have their chance at redemption. The Bulldogs face Denver in the first round.
"Taylor, he's a rock for our team," said Ferris State senior and leading scorer Jordie Johnston of his goaltender. "He's a guy who you know every game you come into, he's going to be playing his best."
Nelson's career in Big Rapids has been, if anything, consistently inconsistent. After starting 15 games and boasting a .700 winning percentage as a sophomore, Nelson started just twice as a junior, ceding time to then-senior Pat Nagle.
During the 2011-12 campaign, as a senior himself, Nelson split time early in the year with freshman C.J. Motte before developing the proverbial "hot hand" as the postseason approached.
Said Nelson on the eve of the NCAA tournament, "I'm pretty happy that I was able to kind of take the reins this year and play the game that I love, have fun doing it and play with this group of guys.
"Last year I got behind Pat Nagle, who had an excellent season, and he's a great goaltender. And I was able to sit back and reflect and work on things. And if anything, I think like Coach would say, maybe I was squeezing too hard, working too hard trying to get back in, and I was just making some mistakes. And this year, I just settled myself down, worked hard in the offseason, and was able to get back to the way I know I can play."
Friday against Denver will mark the first NCAA tournament appearance for Ferris State since 2003. That year, starting goaltender Mike Brown had the benefit of an explosive offense led by Hobey finalist Chris Kunitz, who paced the Bulldogs with 79 points and was one of seven players on the roster with 10 or more goals.
This season's edition of the Bulldogs, on the other hand, has just three players with double-digit goal totals — Johnston and junior wingers Matthew Kirzinger and Kyle Bonis.
With a significantly less potent offense — one that engineered just one win in nine games this season when the Bulldogs allowed four or more goals — more responsibility has fallen on the netminder, Nelson.
Said Johnston, "That makes it a lot easier on us up at the front when you know [Nelson] is going to get a few saves to bail you out when you make a mistake."
Nelson has a 2.18 goals-against average this season, in addition to a .920 save percentage. And with an overall record of 18-6-3, Nelson enters the NCAA tournament with the third highest winning percentage for goaltenders in the country — trailing only fellow NCAA tournament participants Parker Milner (Boston College) and Troy Grosenick (Union).
"[Taylor] has definitely stepped up to the plate this year," said Ferris State defenseman Chad Billins, a first-team All-CCHA selection himself. "It just makes the game go a lot smoother when there's a guy back there talking to you. As a defenseman I can say this: he's very vocal and he doesn't get too up or too down.
"He's just very smooth back there."
Zach Helfand contributed to this article.