Best Laid Plans
Bowling Green, Goalie Nell, Still Trying to Find Footing
by Ryan Satkowiak/CHN Reporter
Heading into the 2016-17 season led by an all-league goalie who posted a 1.91 goals-against average as a sophomore, Bowling Green was the trendy pick to finish the regular season at the top of the WCHA standings.
That hasn’t come to fruition, as last season’s top-10 defense had a slow start out of the gate. The Falcons, as a whole, struggled as the puck dropped on the season. But there’s a little more to that story than just the on-ice results.
As people outside the program pontificated about the issues surrounding Bowling Green’s defense, and its reigning all-league goalie, the man between the pipes for the Falcons attempted to cope with unimaginable loss.
Chris Nell’s father, Rick, unexpectedly passed away shortly before the season started. The elder Nell was a fixture at Falcon games, both home and away, and could be seen around town after games home games when the Nell family would go out to eat. Rick Nell had a profound impact on his son as both a person and a player.
“He was a big influence in my life. He didn’t really know all too much about hockey, so I didn’t listen to him all too much,” Chris joked about advice his dad would give him. “But he learned a lot through the years. He was someone who was always there for me, someone who would knock me down when I get too high, but was right there to have my back and fight for me no matter what.”
Chris looked to hockey to serve as an outlet and distraction from the outside world. But, understandably, the loss hit him hard.
“I thought right away it was (an escape) for sure, it’s something that takes your mind off of it,” Nell said. “But I think that once it came to the games for me in the first part of the year was I was trying to do too much; I was trying to do it all for him. I really put a lot of pressure on myself. There’s a fine line. It’s definitely an escape no matter when I was playing. It’s just at times I thought maybe I was trying to do too much and maybe it affected my performance on the ice.”
Nell’s numbers suffered out of the gate, but he didn’t exactly have a ton of help in front of him. The Falcons struggled with defensive zone breakdowns for much of the first month of the season. It didn’t matter who was tending the crease, an inordinately high number of pucks were ending up in the back of the net.
Through his first five appearances of the season, Nell had a 3.79 GAA and .841 save percent. His backups — senior Tomas Sholl and freshman Ryan Bednard — combined to allow 11 goals on 31 shots in the approximately 75 minutes Nell didn’t play during Bowling Green’s first six games of the season.
The Falcons, as a whole, weren’t playing well in front of their goalies. The inconsistencies weren’t necessarily a new thing for this team. The difference was the all-league goalie they relied on to bail them out a year ago was not quite right.
“In the past, that play might’ve been masked by outstanding goaltending or special teams play,” Bowling Green head coach Chris Bergeron said. “That (wasn’t) happening. We’re not playing well and the results are showing that.”
Over time, Nell found his game and with that came a string of success. The Falcons ripped off a 7-1-1 nine-game stretch from Oct. 29-Nov. 26 to climb the WCHA standings. But since then, even as Nell’s play has remained steady, the Falcons have stagnated in the standings.
Inconsistency has become the main storyline for this Bowling Green team. Since the team reconvened for the second half of the season, it’s 6-6-0, seemingly alternating back-to-back wins with back-to-back losses.
The Falcons won four-straight games from Nov. 11-Nov. 19, but other than that do not have another winning streak of three games or longer this season. At 12-13-1-1 in conference play, the team that was picked to finish tops in the league is fighting just to ensure it will have home ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
And at 15-17-2 overall, the Falcons won’t reach the 20-win mark for a third consecutive season unless they can muster a deep playoff run. The team has a bye week this weekend, before closing the regular season Feb. 24-25 at home against Alabama-Huntsville.
“I hope it comes at a good time for us to get away and kind of rest mentally and physically,” Bergeron said of the team’s bye week. “Mentally and physically our team needs a rest. I hope it comes at a good time. Hopefully a little break from games will remind our guys that there’s not many games left, so let’s not take them for granted.”
Offensively, the Falcons have struggled since returning from the short holiday break. They broke a three-game goalless streak with a 3-0 win against Mercyhurst last Saturday, and are averaging only two goals a game in their last 12 contests.
The offensive cold streak comes as Nell has found his groove. He’s played in 10 of Bowling Green’s 12 games since the break, during which he has a 1.79 GAA and .926 save percent. He’s also posted two shutouts, giving him nine for his career, which broke a school record he shared with Andrew Hammond and Tyler Masters.
“There’s been so many good goalies who have come here before me that sort of paved the way for that,” Nell said. “It’s sort of humbling, something that you don’t think about until you get it, and it’s pretty cool. I couldn’t have done it without the guys who’ve been in front of me the last few years.”
If Bowling Green has one thing going for it as the regular season winds down, it’s a giant chip on its shoulders.
The team has underperformed relative to preseason expectations, but it’s still a roster with more than enough talent, that has proven over the course of two and a half years that when it’s playing a strong, attacking style, it’s capable of beating anyone in the WCHA.
They also have an all-league caliber goalie, who has held opposing teams to two goals or fewer eight times in the past 10 games. Nell’s play will be a key factor in how the final chapter of this season plays out for Bowling Green. But as has been demonstrated the past 12 games, the Falcons offense will need to co-author that story, too.
“I think we’re all disappointed in the regular season that we’ve had,” Nell said. “We think we should’ve had more wins that we do. But I think that’s motivation for us to show that we’re a team you can’t take lightly. Obviously it’s a whole new monster when playoffs come around, and everyone is fired up to play that first series.”