As the clock ticked down the final two minutes in Green Bay, Wis., last Saturday night, the hopes of Ferris State rested in the capable hands of its senior goaltender, Taylor Nelson.
Nelson not only shut down the pressing offense of the Cornell Big Red, he helped lift his Bulldogs to their first Frozen Four appearance, earning Midwest Regional Most Valuable Player honors in the process.
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That accomplishment in Green Bay was a long way from where both Nelson and the Bulldogs were six months ago.
He had no idea what to expect from himself, let alone from the Bulldogs’ coaching staff, entering the season. Splitting time during his freshman year with then-sophomore Pat Nagle, Nelson won five times in 19 appearances. Seeing action in 16 games as a sophomore, Nelson improved to 9-3-3.
As a junior, Nelson struggled mightily, appearing in just four games and winning none. His goals against average ballooned from 2.49 to 3.10, and his save percentage dipped from .915 to .870.
“For Taylor, it’s been four years of kind of up and downs, like it is for a lot of student athletes,” Daniels said. “Last year, as a junior, he kind of lost his game a little bit. I was so proud of the fact that he continued to work every day in practice, knowing by the second half that Pat Nagle was going to continue to play all of the games.”
Despite not playing after Jan. 15 in the 2010-11 season, Nelson continued to come to the rink day in and day out determined to work through his struggles and attempt to help the team any way he could.
Ferris State ended the season 18-16-5 after a playoff series loss at Western Michigan. Nelson knew he needed to get his game back, and he settled into a regimen with strength coach Dave Cencer during the offseason. Cencer and Nelson had one goal in mind: get Nelson ready for the start of the new season.
“Last season was very tough for me as I felt like I couldn’t be a help to the team and that my hands were tied,” Nelson said. “I stayed on campus in the offseason and worked on sharpening my skills. Dave Cencer and I worked to help me to come into this season in midseason form.”
While he was the most experienced goaltender on the Bulldogs’ roster heading into this season, Nelson never felt that the job was his to lose, mainly due to the fact that he never felt the job was guaranteed to be his in the first place.
“I worked hard to earn the spot,” Nelson said. “I didn’t feel like the job was mine to lose, but I felt that I had to earn it through my hard work.”
Nelson is also quick to credit his former goaltending partner for helping him learn what it takes to be a leader both on and off the ice.
“The biggest thing I learned from playing with Pat was his demeanor,” Nelson said. “I’ve always carried my emotions with me after games. With Pat, when the game was over, it was over. It took me a while to learn that.”
It took Nelson all of two starts this season to prove that he finally understood. On Oct. 14, Nelson stopped all 17 shots Rensselaer sent his way to earn just the second shutout of his career. Three starts later, he picked up his third in a 29-save performance at Bowling Green.
–Ferris State goaltender Taylor Nelson
The performance against the Falcons was made more impressive by the fact that he was coming off a five-goal night at Michigan the previous weekend. From that point forward, he surrendered five goals only once more.
During that stretch, the Bulldogs posted 15 consecutive games without a regulation loss. While on that impressive run, Ferris State — picked for ninth in the CCHA by the league’s coaches in a preseason poll — climbed up the rankings, peaking at No. 1 on Feb. 13. That helped the Bulldogs to their second CCHA regular season title in 34 years as a league member.
“As we got on that 15-game unbeaten streak, it was great,” Nelson said. “Every game was a playoff-style game. There really was something special in the air and we really felt like we could do anything.”
Nelson has followed each of his five-goal nights with a shutout in his next start. His more care-free attitude has helped keep his team posting wins as his numbers have become extremely impressive: a 20-win season with a 2.10 goals against average and a .923 save percentage.
His attitude, along with his teammates’ willingness to lay their bodies on the line for him, has put the Bulldogs in a position to make headlines again at the Frozen Four.
“I think we can come in here and maybe make some noise,” Nelson said. “We want to play two games in Tampa, not one.”