It took Nikita Popugaev a bit to get going, but the big Russian forward is firing on all cylinders right now for the Moose Jaw Warriors.
Popugaev – who doesn't turn 17 until the end of next month – had five goals and nine points in the Warriors' three games last week, giving him 11 points on the year, which has him second in the WHL in rookie scoring.
“Once he scored his first one, it gave him a lot of confidence,” said Dryden Hunt, one of Popugaev's linemates. “He's got that confidence now and he's been flying for us, so it's been really good for our team.”
All of Popugaev's skills were on display during Saturday's game-tying goal against the Kootenay Ice. Popugaev picked up the puck in the neutral zone, cut across the blue line and ripped a shot off the far side post and in from the top of the circle.
The play showed off the speed, agility and shot that the six-foot-four forward brings to the table.
“He's a skilled player, he's offensive, he's big, he's got a great shot and he knows the game,” said captain Brayden Point, Popugaev's other linemate. “He's been a huge addition to our team and I can only see him getting better as the season moves on.”
“Looking at him out there, you would never believe that he's not even 17,” added head coach Tim Hunter. “He handles the puck well, shoots the puck well and moves well for a guy that's six-foot-four.”
Popugaev started slow with just two assists in his first three games after getting two assists in three preseason games. After getting his first goal in the first period of the Warriors' 8-5 win over Vancouver, the Moscow native has been rolling.
He scored the game-tying goal against Vancouver, 4:17 into the third period, for his second of the game. He kept the roll going on Friday with a first period marker against the Edmonton Oil Kings. Then found another gear during Saturday's 4-3 come back win over Kootenay.
His game-tying goal sparked the Warriors after a sluggish second period and led to Hunt's eventual game-winner with just over a minute to go in the game.
“He feels good, he's part of the team and the guys like him, his English is coming along, so comfort is a big part of him gaining confidence and I think he's very comfortable right now,” said Hunter. “Once he goes through a round of games against everybody in this league, he'll be confident that he can play in this league.”
Popugaev will try to keep his hot streak going as he heads out on his first road trip of his WHL career. The Warriors will be in Cranbrook to face the Kootenay Ice on Wednesday in the first of three games in four nights.
They head to Calgary on Thursday and Edmonton on Saturday.