Los Angeles Kings need weary Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown
CHICAGO — The locker room had emptied out, his teammates heading home, when Anze Kopitar finally emerged.
Medical treatment for an unspecified ailment had kept him around late, but that wasn’t the only reason for the weary look on his face. Kopitar had endured a tough night against the Chicago Blackhawks, managing only one shot on goal.
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s frustrating.”
Last year at this time, the Kings center was piling up points, recording eight goals and a dozen assists on his team’s run to the Stanley Cup. His teammate, Dustin Brown, was on a similar roll, the two of them leading the offense.
This postseason, Kopitar and Brown have combined for 11 points — roughly a quarter of their output in 2012 — which goes a long way toward explaining why the Kings trail Chicago three games to one with the Western Conference finals set to resume Saturday night at United Center.
As Coach Darryl Sutter said early in the series: “We have guys that have to score.”
It is an axiom in sports: The best players must shine at playoff time. That’s especially true for the Kings, a physical, defense-minded team that needs bursts of offense to complement Jonathan Quick’s goaltending.
A two-goal average has not been good enough. For Kopitar and Brown, who have struggled around the net for the past month, the current series has proven especially troublesome.
Kopitar has rarely been free to execute his trademark maneuver, wheeling along the boards with the puck on his stick, using that 6-foot-3 frame to ward off defenders. There has been much speculation about a lingering injury, which he has refused to discuss.
Either way, Chicago’s agile skaters have done a good job of denying him and Brown the space to make plays.
“You get by one and they almost cheat on the play in the sense that the second guy is coming right away,” Brown said. “Where you catch them is when they overplay, but we haven’t been able to find the open guys.”
Contrast this predicament with the scene in the other locker room, where Patrick Kane feels relieved.
Like Kopitar and Brown, the Chicago winger is a dangerous scorer who had faltered of late. He had alternately tried being more patient and more aggressive. The other night, he studied videotape of previous playoff goals with his dad.
“It’s cool to watch those things,” he said. “It gives you a little confidence.”
Kane finally broke through Thursday night with an acrobatic goal in the second period.
The sequence began with a slapshot from the blue line that was deflected by teammate Bryan Bickell, the puck dribbling toward the goal line. As Quick twisted around to retrieve it, Kane reached in to finish the play while launching himself airborne, over the fallen goalie.
Truth be told, the shot probably would have carried across without any help.
“I told Bicksy I was kind of sorry I stole it from him,” Kane said of the goal. “Kind of instinctive when you see the puck there, to stick your stick in and touch it.”
Whatever it takes to end a slump.
Chicago Coach Joel Quenneville was hoping to create this type of spark when he tinkered with his lines in Game 4. Kane seemed to play with renewed verve, especially on a third-period rush when he veered to the side and snapped a wrister that Quick barely gloved.
“Got a lot of support from coaches or teammates that want you to have the puck,” Kane said. “They want you to start skating with it and moving it.”
The Kings want the same for Kopitar and Brown. To this point, they have gotten most of their scoring from center Jeff Carter, defenseman Slava Voynov and winger Justin Williams, who has played inconsistently but has found the net at key moments.
Hoping to enliven his biggest stars, Sutter has done some mixing and matching, testing various combinations.
Brown has willingly moved around, the captain pulling duty on the third line in some games. He insists the Kings are just a pass or two away from solving the Chicago defense and claimed to see good things early in Thursday night’s loss.
“In the first [period] it was a good example,” he said. “They overplayed and we had a two-on-one, a three-on-two, and we had a great scoring opportunity.”
But with the game tied at 2-2 starting the third period, the Kings were stymied for 20 minutes, managing only two shots on goal while another Chicago star, Marian Hossa, produced the winner during an odd-man rush.
“I haven’t looked at the stat sheet — I’m sure you have,” Sutter told reporters afterward. “Look at who has the shots. It’s probably going to show that some of our top guys didn’t.”
Which left Kopitar looking glum, standing in the hallway as team staff readied large equipment bags for the trip to Chicago. He mused about finding more room to make things happen.
This time of year, the top stars have to come through.
“I’ve just got to play better and produce more,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”
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