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Koper off to fast start for Chiefs’ home opener

Levko Koper’s four-goal outburst in the Spokane Chiefs’ two-game series in Prince George to open the Western Hockey League season wasn’t a surprise to coach Hardy Sauter.

And he wasn’t the least bit concerned that Koper’s pace from a season-opening hat trick in a 6-3 win dropped from 216 goals to 144 as the only scorer in the 2-1 overtime loss.

“I don’t know what happened there,” the second-year coach said jokingly, before adding, “Levko’s gone through four spans of time where he catches fire and he can score as good as anyone. We need those stretches to be longer and/or more often. We know he can score, it’s just a matter of him doing the work and getting to the spots he needs to in order to do that.”

Koper, who was fourth on the team last year with 23 goals and 36 assists, said his recent stint at the Atlanta Thrashers’ camp helped.

“I felt like I just had a little more time to do everything,” the seventh-round pick in the June NHL draft said. “At pro camp you have very little time to do anything; everything has to be done right away. Coming back here I felt more confident. There was more time to do everything; a little more space.”

Koper tries to keep up the pace when the Chiefs play their home opener against Tri-City and first-year coach Jim Hiller tonight at 7.

“It’s definitely not just another game,” he said. “First time you’re at home, finally everyone’s cheering for you. It’s going to be an exciting night; a lot of nerves out there. It’s something everybody looks forward to.

“You have to get your first shift out of the way, just get the puck deep, get a couple of hits. Mostly keep it simple.”

Sauter likes the idea of opening with the Americans, who defeated Portland 4-3 on Friday night.

“I think it’s going to be a real good thing for us, especially since we don’t play on Friday,” he said. “People would probably think I’m full of it but you lose a little bit of rhythm without playing on a Friday night and so Saturday, with the extra emotion, that makes up for the lack of a game on Friday. … I think there are a lot of things that set this up to be a real interesting hockey game.”

Sauter said Koper’s scoring wasn’t the only positive from the PG trip.

“The things we’ve worked on were better from training camp until now,” he said “That shows the guys are paying attention and willing to learn. Our pursuit on the puck is real good. We’re potentially a very fast team.

“And, quiet honestly, I love the fact that we were down 1-0 for 2½ periods and I knew the guys weren’t throwing in the towel. They kept working and struggling to score that one goal to tie it and eventually they got it. Attitude is definitely huge.”

But that one goal – though it was good for a point in the standings – also concerned Sauter.

“I think we addressed a little bit of that in the trade,” he said. “There’s still a long way to go as far as how we want to do things. The power play has to improve. You have to discourage teams from taking penalties by scoring on power plays.”

Picking up talented and controversial power forward Kyle Beach in a trade for two defensemen on Wednesday should help on offense, but so should Koper, who thinks he has a lot to prove despite his status as a NHL draftee.

“I was never drafted (out of bantams),” the Edmonton, Alberta, native said. “I think it probably helped me a little bit. It definitely put a chip on my shoulder. I knew I had to change something. It gave me something to work for. I started doing a lot of stuff in the off-season … getting more serious about it.”

Koper had five points in 50 games as a rookie and then came back with 26 points (12 goals) as a 17-year-old for the Memorial Cup champions.

“I had to work for everything I got,” he said. “I definitely never knew (getting drafted) was going to happen. I was just trying to play it year by year, getting better and whatever happened, happened. It was definitely a happy day, another step in the right direction.”

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