NEWARK, N.J. — He was the player his Kings teammates would have chosen to be in this situation, to have a breakaway in overtime of the Stanley Cup Final, because they knew he would perform as if he were gliding on a pristine glacial lake instead of the choppy ice of the sauna-like Prudential Center.
And there Anze Kopitar was, alone in the midst of a huge crowd and two tired, sweaty teams, an almost surreal scenario.
Drew Doughty got the puck to Justin Williams, who was along the boards when he chipped a beautiful backhand pass to the middle of the ice. There was nothing between Kopitar and New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur but the sticky air and a few dozen feet of ice.
“Everybody jumped up in anticipation,” said Kings winger Dwight King, who was watching from the bench.
“If there’s a guy I want to take a breakaway, it’s Kopi,” winger Dustin Brown said.
With good reason. Kopitar froze Brodeur with a fake to his backhand and then fired a wrist shot off his forehand to beat Brodeur 8 minutes and 13 seconds into overtime, giving the Kings a 2-1 victory in the opener of their first Final appearance since 1993.
“That type of pressure, that type of play to settle it down, realize he’s got time to make the play and make a great move on a great goaltender, that doesn’t surprise us,” center Jarret Stoll said.
“That’s Anze to a T right there.”
Kopitar’s calm demeanor afterward was typical too. Through slumps and scoring surges, through drama and tedium, he has never let his game completely slide. He always contributed something — if not a goal, then a key faceoff win or excellent penalty-killing shift or defensive play.
In a game in which the Kings’ grinding fourth line of Brad Richardson, Colin Fraser and Jordan Nolan was their most effective trio most of the night, it was Kopitar, their most skillful player, who came through in the clutch.
“I wanted to make sure I went through the middle. I don’t know if he heard me or not,” Kopitar said of Williams. “I yelled for the puck. He chipped it obviously perfect, right on my tape.
“You know, it happened pretty quick. I was able to finish it off.”
Not by chance did he respond to the most intense pressure he and the Kings have faced yet, in the worst conditions and against an opponent that was as physical and tenacious as they were.
Kopitar, like his teammates, has learned this spring how to respond positively to playoff pressure. Their collective performance has been stunning: The Kings extended their league-record playoff road winning streaks to nine in one playoff year and 11 over more than one playoff year, in addition to stretching their overtime record to 3-0 this spring.
Every time they’ve faced adversity they’ve shrugged it off like a failed clutch-and-grab attempt.
They were not playing as well as they thought they should Wednesday and absorbed an unlucky bounce when Devils defenseman Anton Volchenkov’s long shot bounced off Kings defenseman Slava Voynov and past Jonathan Quick to tie the score at 1-1 late in the second period, but they never stopped believing they would win, somehow.
“You know, they don’t give up a whole lot,” Kopitar said of the Devils. “You have to be careful going through the neutral zone, that you don’t make any turnovers, because they got some speedy forwards, some forwards obviously that can finish. You have to await turnovers and just make sure you make strong plays.”
Kopitar’s move on Brodeur was brilliant, the skill guy making the big play at the biggest moment yet for this team.
“That’s the way it works in playoffs,” winger Dustin Penner said. “That’s how good teams become great. That’s how you pull games out of the fire.
“We didn’t come out the way we wanted. We had chances, we outshot them, but it was a pretty even game. I think it just came down to one opportunity.”
One opportunity for the one guy they knew would make the most of it.
“He’s a special player,” Penner said.
And because he is, the Kings are one win closer to doing something very special.