Pop-ko Goes the Terriers
by Joe Meloni/CHN Reporter
When Boston University and Maine touch the TD Garden ice for the first time Friday night, the eyes of most will turn toward Maine's No. 89 — sophomore Gustav Nyquist. One day after his selection as a Hockey East First Team All-Star and a finalist for the Hobey Baker award, the Swedish sniper will rightfully be the focus of all the media types who start paying attention right when everything gets good.
Across the ice, skating alongside his teammates, Nyquist's shadow for the evening will anonymously prepare for another night defending one of Hockey East's most gifted weapons. It's funny that Luke Popko should be overlooked by anyone. Often, as Popko goes, the Terriers go.
If this is the first time you're hearing of Popko, that isn't at all shocking. He doesn't do much to draw attention. In fact, if you notice him it likely means he's made a mistake. Like referees, when he's at is absolute best, you'd hardly know he's there.
The players he covers, though, you definitely know their names.
Last year, it was van Riemsdyk.
You get the picture. These are names that people know because they score goals. They turn cheers into ovations. They're going to play in the National Hockey League someday — if they already haven't.
Even on his own team, the names out weigh his.
NHL talent with all the accolades and skills to match. They know it, too. They're more talented than he is, and BU won't win anything this weekend if they aren't at their best. But they're put at ease because they know Popko will be at his best, like he was last weekend when the Terriers earned their place in the final weekend of the Hockey East season by knocking of an upstart Merrimack team.
"Luke is overlooked a lot," BU captain Kevin Shattenkirk said following Sunday's win. "He's a great face-off guy for us in those big pressure positions and situations where we need a win. He does a great job on the penalty kill for us. A lot of guys on the team will look at him as a leader in that way."
Popko's charge that weekend was recently-named Hockey East Rookie of the Year Stephane Da Costa, the Frenchman right in the middle of the Warriors' quest for regional relevance. Da Costa managed to score one goal over the weekend, so Popko wasn't perfect. Still, on Sunday night with the teams bragging a game apiece in the series, Da Costa was invisible. In Game 3, he found a hole or two, but Popko closed them before they became scoring chances. Not until the final few seconds when Da Costa and BU freshman Alex Chiasson threw a few punches was Merrimack's best player even visible.
Popko worries about winning, but he doesn't have to score goals for the Terriers to do that. It's his job to make sure the other guys don't score. The role of the energy line or checking line or whatever you like to call it is often overlooked and misunderstood, but Popko's managed to turn the task into an art form.
"Luke Popko is a terrific player who doesn't get any recognition because of what he does for us. He fills a huge role for us. He knows what his role is; he relishes playing in it, and his teammates appreciate what he does. He's a real hard worker," BU coach Jack Parker said.
Jump the boards. Hit a guy. Dig the puck out of corner. Keep it in their zone. Tire out their best scorer and hop back on the bench for a minute or two.
OK, so maybe it's not that easy. The best are the best because they can beat guys like Popko even when he's at his best. But the value of players like him reveals itself when his teammates are at their worst. When a defenseman pinches at the wrong time or a winger gets a little too anxious on a breakout, Popko calmly turns and guides BU out of danger.
If BU gets past Maine on Friday night, when Popko drifts into the faceoff circle on Saturday he'll likely see either Brian Gibbons or Brayden Irwin across from him for most of the evening. The techniques may change for Popko depending on who he draws — Gibbons, the shifty aggressive playmaker and Irwin, the 6-foot-5 power forward — but the goal will be the same. And no matter how well BU's all-stars play, the results have to be the same, too, because as Popko goes, so go the Terriers.
Whether you notice him or not.