SIOUX CITY | Nobody has clanked more goalposts or had more narrow-missed scoring chances this season than Cole Koepke.
Not that he was lacking for confidence, but the gritty left wing of the Sioux City Musketeers was brimming with exactly that when he buried a shorthanded goal 6 ½ minutes into the first period Saturday night. Then for good measure, he scored his second goal five minutes later off a Martin Pospisil assist.
Koepke, who made it a hat trick on a goal with 43 seconds left in the second period, has saved some of his best work of the season against Eastern Conference opponents like the Central Illinois Flying Aces. He has six goals against the teams from the opposite side of the United States Hockey League following a 5-2 victory at the Tyson Events Center.
“It means a lot, but I’m also glad I got to experience (a hat trick) with a win because it makes it all the better,” said Koepke, a Minnesota-Duluth recruit who now leads Coach Luke Strand’s Musketeers with nine goals.
“I’ve had a lot of chances that haven’t gone in, but my teammates have done a good job of picking me up when I get down and giving me the puck, hoping to continue to get those chances. The bounces went right for me tonight. Every time you score one goal and go for two in a game, you develop a certain level of comfort, you hold the puck more and you’re better at creating plays.”
Strand credited Koepke for scoring timely goals, especially with the shortie. Koepke, who has two multiple-goal efforts this season, is now tied with fellow alternate captain Micah Miller for the team lead at two shorthanded goals.
“I think Cole is a burner of what happens to him in the fact that he came through and didn’t cheat for those goals,” said Strand. “He went and skated and earned them. He’s had scoring chances galore in terms of not getting pucks past the goalie, but when you score shorthanded goals, you score timely goals. I’m happy for him to get that going and I hope he continues it after the break.”
Koepke and his teammates head into the Christmas break on a positive note following the weekend sweep of Central Illinois. For starters, when defenseman Jack Babbage scored his first career USHL goal with 3:56 remaining until the first intermission, it marked the highest-scoring opening period of the season.
Sioux City (7-11-3) also had a perfect weekend with its penalty kill. Saturday night, the special team category that’s still last in the USHL (51 of 71, 71.8 percent) didn’t allow Central Illinois to score in four power-play chances, making it 6 of 6 in the two-game series.
Among the highlights in the Musketeers’ PK was the conversion of a key second-period situation fueled by Pospisil’s double-minor for roughing and subsequent 10-minute misconduct penalty. Defenseman and alternate captain Keegan Mantaro cleared three pucks in that time, while Babbage and Matt Miller were also among the Musketeers clearing pucks and keeping Central Illinois off the scoreboard.
Sioux City’s PK has been perfect in four of the last six games.
“I thought there were some timely efforts, like the amount of ice time for players like Matt Miller, Cole Koepke, Ryan Leibold and Hayden Rowan had,” said Strand. “Those are big minutes and really responsible times for them to put the team on their back. Another guy is Micah Miller. I was happy for them. I thought we pressured. Then, Matt (Jurusik) made some saves on those. They’re a gutsy group.”
The Musketeers are idle until Dec. 28 when they play at Sioux Falls.