SIOUX CITY | Cole Koepke scored the most exciting goal of his life Saturday night.
Perhaps the majority of the 2,147 fans in attendance at the Tyson Events Center were preparing for overtime. Koepke changed their plans when he buried a one-on-one chance with 1.9 seconds left as the surging Sioux City Musketeers posted their fourth consecutive victory, 2-1, during United States Hockey League action over the Lincoln Stars.
“It was super-exciting, especially in a 1-1 game against a division team that we’re trailing,” said Koepke. “This was huge for us. It’s really exciting.
“Honestly, I really don’t know how it started. We were on the back check and one of their forwards pulled up and I just poke-checked it. It split their ‘D’ and it was a breakaway from there.”
An alternate captain for Coach Luke Strand’s 9-11-3 Musketeers, Koepke has scored four goals in the winning streak, three of them coming in a 5-2 win over Central Illinois on Dec. 16. He has a team-high 10 goals heading into Sunday night’s 7:05 New Year’s Eve game at the Tyson against Omaha (14-8-1), which like the Musketeers are among the Western Conference’s hottest teams as of late with nine wins in their last 11 games.
“The timing of that goal was electric for sure,” said Strand. “I can’t be happier for the guy, that’s 10 goals for him. For me, he continues to work hard to get to the net. He earned that. He’s earned all 10 of them.
“He has a lot of team in him. He puts the ‘we’ before the ‘me’ pretty consistently around here. That makes a difference for a player of his stature. He’s mature. He’s been through the league. I think he’s trying to make up time for last year’s (knee) injury.”
Seven other Musketeers have each contributed a goal in the winning streak for a team that has finally escaped the cellar in the Western Conference. With 21 points in the standings, that’s two more than Des Moines (9-13-1), which was idle Saturday and one less than Lincoln (11-12), which suffered its fourth straight defeat.
The latest of the Musketeers’ goal scorers as of late is right wing Dylan Mills, a physical 6-foot-3, 200-pound native of Cottage Grove, Minn. Mills, who started the season with two goals in five games for Waterloo before he was traded in early November, tallied his first goal in five games for Sioux City.
An upper-body injury had prevented Mills from eight games of action on the ice. Penalized for both elbowing and high sticking in the first period, Mills buried a goal past the reach of Lincoln goaltender Tomas Vomacka with five minutes left in the second stanza.
“You have to figure it’s been about a month and a half when he was injured with what he’s been through,” said Strand. “He’s had his feet under him and he’s had some puck touches. You’re happy for a guy who No. 1, has recovered from an injury and No. 2, he has found a way to make a difference.”
Winning goaltender Matt Jurusik (8-9-3) is another difference-maker. The former University of Wisconsin Badger yielded a tying goal from Phillipe Lapointe about a minute into the third period, but continued his stellar play, stopping 39 shots.
Jurusik heads into Saturday night’s game ranked eighth in the USHL with a 2.54 goals-against average. During the winning streak, he has converted 124 of 129 save attempts for 96.1 percent.
Jurusik may not skate as much as teammates who play on the penalty kill, but his saves are key. Opponents have missed their last 15 chances on the PK, another reason for Sioux City’s surge.
“I think we have just found a rhythm,” said Koepke. “We have really come to trust one another when we’re out there on the PK. When you can trust each other, you don’t have to worry about messing up because you know your teammates have your back. When you can do that, it’s hard not to be successful.”