TAMPA, Fla. — Ferris State goaltender Taylor Nelson won the Canadian Tier II junior hockey championship with an outstanding game four years ago.
Now he has his sights set on the college hockey’s top prize: The NCAA title.
Nelson, a 6-foot-1, 177-pound senior from Regina, Saskatchewan, won the battle of all-league goaltenders on Thursday with a 27-save effort in Ferris State’s 3-1 victory against Union College in the Frozen Four semifinals.
“It was an absolute battle. A tight-checking game and if a team made a mistake, it was trouble and the puck was coming back the other way,’’ Nelson said.
Tied 1-1 in the third period, Nelson and Union goalie Troy Grosenick matched clutch save after clutch save in a contest that appeared to be headed into overtime.
But Bulldogs junior left wing Kyle Bonis jumped on a rebound in the slot and backhanded the puck past Grosenick to give his team a 2-1 lead with 4:33 left. Nelson continued his sharp and stellar play in the final minutes and FSU sealed the win with right wing Aaron Schmit’s second goal of the game, into an empty net, with 55 seconds left.
The Bulldogs (26-11-5), making their first Frozen Four appearance, will play for the NCAA title on Saturday against Boston College (32-10-1) a 6-1 winner against Minnesota in Thursday’s second semifinal.
FSU’s Nelson came into Thursday’s contest with a 2.10 goals-against average and a .923 save percentage. He was selected to the Central Collegiate Hockey Association’s All-League First Team.
Grosenick, a 6-foot-1, 190-pound sophomore from Brookfield, Wis., had even better statistics than Nelson. He had a stellar 1.64 goals-against average and a .936 save
percentage and was named to the All-Eastern College Athletic Conference First Team.
Both Nelson and Grosenick are likely NCAA West and East All-American selections. Both are in their first seasons as starters.
“Troy’s a great goalie. He made some big saves and he’s been doing it all year,’’ Nelson said. “In the second period, we went down on a 2-on-1 break and Troy made a great save and they came right back at us. That’s the way these teams played.
“Both are so good defensively that they wait until there’s a mistake and each will bump the puck up and get good scoring chances.’’
Nelson came up big in the second period with 12 saves. After the Dutchmen opened the scoring on Daniel Carr’s 20th goal of the season at 7:56, Nelson kept his team from going down 2-0 with a couple of alert saves, and the Bulldogs got a big confidence boost when Schmit scored on a rebound at 17:02 to tie it 1-1.
In the third period, Nelson stopped nine shots. Grosenick made 11 saves, including a pad stop on a shot from the left point by defenseman Brett Wysopal. But the puck bounced out front where Bonis scored the biggest goal in Bulldog history.
“I just leaped up and out of the crease. I was ecstatic,’’ Nelson said. “Bonis was asked in the press conference if he was a magnet for pucks in that area and he said no. But he is. He’s always in the right spot at the right time.’’
Union players were very impressed with Ferris State’s solid defensive game, opportunistic offense and Nelson’s performance.
“He made some unbelievable saves at the end of the game,’’ Carr said. “I don’t think it was necessarily it was a problem of getting pucks to the net. We had guys going to the net all game. But the goalie made some good saves and didn’t give out any rebounds where we were driving.’’
Nelson, who won the 2008 Canadian junior title while playing for the Humbolt Broncos of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, said despite the pressure of the close third period, he thought “the period just flew by.’’
“I didn’t even look at the clock. But when we scored and it showed 4:33 to go, I just felt that was a lot of time left,’’ he said. “With a team like Union and with that great with Jeremy Welsh [and Carr and Josh Jooris], we really had to be careful.
“But I have so much confidence in our defense and all our guys. We’ve played in those situations before, playing in a lot of close games.’’
And winning a lot of close games. So what did Nelson like about his game?
“I felt like I was calm and in control. That’s what I strive for every night,’’ he said. “But what makes it easy for me to be that calm and collected is the guys in front of me.’’
To get to the Frozen Four, Ferris State defeated Denver, 2-1, and Cornell, 2-1, in the NCAA Midwest Regional in Green Bay, Wis. Nelson made 25 saves against Denver and 22 vs. Cornell.
“We’ve been great all year in getting in shot lanes and blocking shots, and we’re willing to sacrifice for one another,’’ Nelson said. “Our team did a great job today of forcing guys wide and forcing them to have bad angle shots.’’
Bulldogs coach Bob Daniels said Nelson was on his game from the start and never looked out of sync.
“His crease movement was very good. His ability to play simple chips of the puck and stop it and help us break out was good,’’ Daniels said. “And he has the hockey sense to know when we need him to freeze the puck so we can get a line off the ice.
“Taylor’s puck maintenance was excellent, he was good on point-blank shots with his positioning and he’s engaged at all times in tracking the puck.’’
And now Nelson is tracking another championship in another country.
“I don’t think the feeling [of being in the finals] is going to sink in very soon. And it’s one of those things that I don’t think will sink in until after the season,’’ he said. “I was able to win a national championship in junior hockey and I don’t even think that has sunk in yet.
“Our motto right now is we can’t be satisfied. We have to keep that mentality.’’