Ryan Cooper has no idea who Pavel Bure is. But maybe one day Bure will know who he is.
The Leafs rookie scored, set up the winning goal and spent most of his shifts embarrassing the Creston Valley Thunder Cats with hands slicker than butter in a 3-2 victory Saturday in Nelson.
Cooper was lucky to even be in the game. The night before he suffered a blatant hit from behind in Grand Forks that meant a trip to the hospital afterward. He returned only a little worse for wear, and with a considerable chip on his shoulder.
“I was kind of pissed off,” he said. “My neck’s a little sore. Just took it out on the ice.”
That’s an understatement. In the first period he deked one unfortunate Thunder Cat to his knees twice. In the second he toe-dragged his way several times through crowded ice to set up passes.
And on his breakaway goal in the third, he was positively Bure-esque. Even if he has no idea who the Hall of Famer is.
“I have the same breakaway move every time,” said Cooper. “I knew that guy was a little weak down low so I just waited until he opened up his five-hole.”
Cooper also fed David Sanchez for a game-winning goal with less than three minutes left. The victory, combined with Grand Forks’ 4-0 loss to the Beaver Valley, gives Nelson sole possession of first place atop the Neil Murdoch Division.
Justin Podgorenko also scored for the Leafs (6-1-1), while Josh Williams made 31 saves in his second consecutive night of work.
Tyler Witzke and Liam Plunkett had goals for the Thunder Cats (3-3-1), with Noah Giesbrecht stopping 22 shots.
But let’s return to Cooper, who stole the show Saturday.
With just under three minutes left in regulation, Cooper took a faceoff and froze Creston Valley defenders when he skated forward instead of passing back. He dangled through two players and found Sanchez at the far post for the late winner.
It’s a play Cooper said Leafs head coach Mario DiBella had suggested, and that he’d practised with Sanchez.
“[Cooper] sees the ice,” said DiBella. “He has an innate ability to find the open guy or do the subtle things like look off a pass and shoot the puck. He opens up goaltenders and slides it five-hole as we saw today. He’s an offensive machine.”
Both sides set a quick pace to start the game. Eight minutes into regulation Jaiden LaPorte was all alone with the puck and went for a deke. Only a quick stick by Giesbrecht denied what might have been an opening goal.
Shortly after, a player collided with Williams and shook the Nelson netminder. He needed a visit with the trainer to collect himself but stayed in the game and made a stretched-out save only seconds later.
The game featured a rarely seen butt-ending penalty by Leafs forward Jackson Zimmermann in the first period. He was assessed a double minor in the box for the infraction, which was killed off by a stout Nelson defence.
In the second period, Justin James had Williams beat on a rush but Leafs defenceman Michael Bladon hooked him to take the penalty and save a goal against.
That sacrifice ended up being moot. On the ensuing power play Witzke was the recipient of a big rebound and he buried his shot to put the Thunder Cats up 1-0 nine minutes into the period.
Witzke put his team on the back foot shortly after by taking a spearing double minor. The Leafs didn’t let it go to waste, with Podgorenko potting a rebound on the doorstep to tie the game with four minutes left in the period.
“It was a nice point shot from one of our D-men, it was pretty much a gift,” said Podgorenko. “You don’t get those very often.”
Cooper gave the Leafs a lead less than two minutes into the third. Sanchez fed Cooper on a breakaway before he undressed Giesbrecht with his beauty move.
That goal sparked a heavyweight bout. Podgorenko and Creston Valley defenceman Colten Witter dropped gloves after the latter took a shot at a Leafs player. The refs let them dance with the pair throwing haymakers for the better part of a minute in a fight worthy of pay-per-view.
Podgorenko was later spotted with a well-earned bag of ice on his right hand.
“If you’re a fight fan you got your money’s worth there,” quipped DiBella.
James manufactured the Thunder Cats’ equalizer about three minutes later. He carried the puck into the slot and forced a save from Williams, with a trailing Plunkett there to slap in the rebound.
But in the dying minutes Sanchez scored off Cooper’s daring move and emphatically jumped into the air to put an exclamation mark on a tense win and a tremendous opening month to the season for the Leafs.
“We’ve just got to keep it going,” said Cooper. “And we’ve got a group in the locker-room that can.”
Leaflets: Nelson is back on home ice next weekend for a game against the Beaver Valley Nitehawks on Friday followed by the Spokane Braves on Saturday.