Earlier this week, Arizona State head coach Greg Powers gave freshman forward Matthew Kopperud high praise.
“From day one, I’ve compared him to a left shot Johnny Walker,” Powers said during his weekly media availability.
With five points through his first six games of college hockey, the comparison seemed accurate.
Then the first-year player followed up on that Thursday night, netting two goals and recording three points in the No. 20 Sun Devils (3-3-1) 6-3 victory over No. 16 Notre Dame (2-3) in South Bend. He has lit the lamp in each of the last three games.
“I’m definitely playing with a lot more confidence in my shot and trusting it a lot more than I did at the start,” Kopperud said of his offensive outburst. “It’s working and I’m just going to keep shooting. Definitely practicing these last couple of weeks on the road and trusting my linemates has made it a lot easier.”
Kopperud wasn’t the only freshman to have an impact in game one against the Fighting Irish, though.
Forward Ryan O’Reilly got things started for ASU just 11 seconds into the first period, muscling off a defenseman and gliding toward the goal mouth before slipping a shot past Fighting Irish goaltender Ryan Bischel to make the score 1-0.
In case you missed it— Sun Devil Hockey (@SunDevilHockey) December 4, 2020
(which many of you probably did because it happened in the first 11 seconds of the game)@oreilly_ryan with the dangle to score his second of the season and the first of the series.#RoadWarriors // #BeTheTraditon pic.twitter.com/yVhHeG77IU
“We just wanted to dominate in the offensive zone. I think our team has capitalized on a lot of our shots and you saw it tonight. Every time we put pucks on net, good things happened,” O’Reilly said. “We just tried to keep on peppering the goalie with it.”
ASU led 3-2 after the opening frame and never trailed throughout the game. Notre Dame controlled the latter half of the second period, but the Sun Devils would escape leading 4-3.
Then Kopperud provided a back-breaker late in the third, using a defenseman as a screen and snapping a wrist shot into the back of the net to beat Bischel again. It made the score 5-3, and ASU would be able to salt away the rest of the game.
For a second straight matchup, the Sun Devils were able to clamp down with a lead in the third period while not allowing any goals. On lines 1-4, ASU had very similar ice time between all 12 of its forwards.
Ice time was evenly distributed, and the level of play remained consistent. Without Johnny Walker due to injury, it’s been an important aspect of the Sun Devils three-game winning streak.
Additionally, upperclassmen PJ Marrocco, Jordan Sandhu, and Sean Dhooghe have yet to score a goal, while James Sanchez (who put up 40 points last year) has only scored once.
Regardless, the young class of Devils have flourished, and the rest of the lineup still has plenty of time to get going in a long pandemic season. Nevertheless, it’s a credit to the team’s depth.
“The beauty of this thing is we are playing really well right now and our veteran top guys that are going to score, they are not scoring right now,” Powers said. “We’re getting production out of guys that we knew could do it, and that makes our team hard to beat. When you have to defend against every line that you are playing against and that’s a scoring threat...that’s dangerous when you can roll four like that.”
On the back end, junior Evan DeBrouwer got his second straight start, making 31 saves on 34 shots. Despite a few loose rebounds that led to Notre Dame goals, he ultimately was sharp and made a variety of big saves.
Altogether, it was a good road recipe for success as ASU got back to .500 and will look to completely lift themselves out of their early season hole going for the sweep and fourth straight victory tomorrow night.
Powers said that the turning point after the rough start can be traced back to the beginning of last week in Madison. Frustration started to build and the groups focus began to turn up a notch.
That week, practices were sharp and the intensity increased, leading to the on-ice results of the last three games after struggling out of the gates. The momentum seems to be building in the Sun Devil locker room.
“Honestly I think right now they are just becoming such a close group just because of the nature of this trip,” Powers said. “They are bonding together really tight right now and it’s a lot of belief.”