UNO played the final 22 minutes of Saturday’s victory over Western Michigan without senior captain Brian Cooper after he was assessed a game misconduct penalty for a check from behind.
It’s not something the Mavericks want to do often. The senior from Anchorage, Alaska, is too important.
“He’s phenomenal,” junior co-captain Jake Guentzel said. “The guy plays in all positions and areas of the game that no one else does. Without him, I don’t know if we would be where we are right now.”
Where the Mavs are is in position to make back-to-back NCAA tournaments for the first time in program history. UNO is among the top 10 teams in the PairWise rankings heading into the final three weeks of the regular season. After a run to the Frozen Four, Cooper said the bar was set high this season.
“We were going into it with high expectations,” he said. “We still have high expectations now. We said it leading up to those opening nights at Baxter (Arena) — the Frozen Four is a goal, a national championship is a dream. I still think that’s a goal. It’s not going to stop being a goal. Hopefully, we can just continue.”
Cooper played a key role as UNO advanced to Boston last April. The defenseman took a captain’s position during the second half of the season with senior Dominic Zombo out due to injury. He led the Mavs in blocked shots and penalty minutes and posted, by far, the best plus-minus rating on the team. Cooper also helped on offense by scoring five goals (four on power plays) and assisting on 11 others.
He’s on pace to exceed nearly all of those numbers during his senior season. Coach Dean Blais said as the Mavs prepare for a potential postseason run, Cooper will be guiding them.
“Brian, to us, is our leader — clear-cut,” Blais said. “He comes to play every game, every practice.
“He, obviously, logs a lot of ice time — around 20 minutes a game, sometimes more. He’s really good defensively. And I think he’s done a great job this year of getting more pucks through to the net. ... He says the right thing on the ice in practice if things aren’t going good or there’s a tendency to let up here and there. He’s the one that’s always vocal. And in between periods, Brian’s the guy that’s more vocal.”
Guentzel said Cooper is great in the locker room. He commands respect from his teammates.
“He’s hard on guys and keeps guys accountable,” Guentzel said. “We’re lucky to have him.”
Before coming to UNO, Cooper was twice named the defenseman of the year for the USHL franchise in Fargo, North Dakota, earning second-team all-league honors in both seasons. He was selected in the fifth round of the 2012 NHL entry draft, 127th overall, by Anaheim.
Blais said the Ducks organization has a well-rounded player in the 5-foot-10, 203-pounder.
“He’s not very tall, but he’s so good on his skates,” Blais said. “He’s good on his skates for quickness, and he’s good on his skates for strength. He can hit you and hurt you. He’s that kind of defenseman. He looks for a hit now and then. He’s logging a lot of ice time because he’s good defensively. And he can escape that forechecker with a quick turn. And, obviously, his skills at passing are very good.
“Great on his skates, pretty good shot, great attitude and a good team guy — that’s what Brian is.”
When UNO’s season ended last spring, Cooper talked about how much the Mavs were going to miss last year’s senior class. He felt then that the responsibility of making sure the program remained at its new higher standard fell upon himself and fellow seniors Tanner Lane and Aaron Pearce.
Though he was coming off a strong junior season with the most successful UNO team in school history, Cooper dismissed the idea that he could do what some others have done and leave school early to begin a pro career. Anaheim didn’t really need him, and there were other goals.
“At that time, there may have been a little bit of a decision. But in the back of my mind, I already knew what I wanted to do, which was come back,” he said. “I know I’m happy with where I’m at now, where the game is going with the teammates that we have and the progress we’ve been making, setting records. And we’ve opened up a new arena. I think Coach Blais gave me plenty of reasons to come back. And the guys gave me plenty of reasons to come back. I don’t think there was any doubt.”
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