Anchorage — On a Nebraska-Omaha blue line populated by giants -- the Mavericks' regular crew includes 6-foot-8 Andrej Sustr, 6-6 Jaycob Megna and some other guys in the 6-2 to 6-4 range-- marginally undersized freshman defenseman Brian Cooper of Anchorage has fit in fine.
At 5-11 and 187 pounds, Cooper isn't big, but his skating and strength have earned the true freshman a regular job in the lineup. Cooper has played in 24 of the Mavericks' 30 games -- he missed six games with a bruised ankle after getting dinged by a shot in practice.
"He's played more than I thought he would,'' said Nebraska-Omaha bench boss Dean Blais. "He started out and got a spot right away, and at times he's been our best defenseman.''
Cooper, 19, came to the Mavericks after three seasons with the Fargo (N.D.) Force of the U.S. Hockey League, where he was second-team all-league in each of his last two seasons and finished his career captaining the club. The adjustment to the greater pace and skill of the college game wasn't overwhelming in the first half of the season, Cooper said, but he thinks he's played better since the holiday break.
"Once I hit the Christmas break, things sky-rocketed,'' Cooper said. "Points weren't there, but my performance was.''
Cooper, who was drafted in the fifth round by the Anaheim Ducks last summer, has two assists and a minus-1 rating. He's also taking some serious classes -- General Chemistry II and Calculus-based Physics are on his schedule this term.
Cooper, who will be playing at Sullivan Arena for the first time when the Mavericks contest UAA this weekend, said he is continuing to work on the details of his game.
"Mostly, it's fine-tuning things, the kind of stuff my dad (Jeff, a defenseman) always talks about -- getting back to the puck quicker, making a quick first pass, protecting the puck,'' Cooper said. "You just have to make smart plays.''
So far, so good, according to Blais.
"He's obviously smart,'' Blais said. "He's got to rely on his quickness and anticipation because he's not that big. We need him to be physical when it's called for and move the puck out of the zone.
"He makes good decisions. He doesn't pinch down at the wrong time or defend a 3-on-2 and turn it into a 2-on-1.''
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.