Anze Kopitar puts slump aside and puts Kings closer to West finals
Sometime after the Kings’ season ends — and that might not be for a while — it wouldn’t be surprising to hear that center Anze Kopitar had been hampered by an injury from mid-March onward.
A sore shoulder, maybe. An abdominal pull. Or some other type of dreaded upper-body infirmity whose nature was more closely guarded than most national security secrets.
When asked, he repeatedly said he was fine, or as fine as anyone could be during a second straight bruising playoff series. But clearly, he wasn’t the prolific center who has become a premier two-way forward in the NHL and led the Kings in scoring for six straight seasons. He’s prone to annual droughts, but his one-goal-in-26-game struggle redefined the term “scoring slump.”
Yet, when the Kings needed him most, when they had to hold serve at home Thursday to take control of their Western Conference semifinal series against the San Jose Sharks, Kopitar did what big-game players do: win by whatever means possible.
Kopitar, who averaged a point a game during the team’s Stanley Cup run last season, scored only his second goal of these playoffs to launch the Kings to a 3-0 victory at Staples Center on Thursday and put them in position to eliminate the Sharks at San Jose on Sunday.
Throughout his scoring woes Coach Darryl Sutter never ripped Kopitar, never said more than that the team needed more from the line of Kopitar, Justin Williams and Dustin Brown and other scorers, too. Sutter maintained that support Thursday, when he was asked following the morning skate if he had worked on anything specific with Kopitar to reawaken the Slovenian center’s offensive game.
“He’s a special player. You’re just wanting somebody to criticize him. You go up to him and criticize him. I don’t,” Sutter said.
“He’s a good player and he’s a top young player and he’s playing against guys that for the most part are top players too, and he gets that all the time. It’s part of the development of Kopi. He’s a top player in the league and just because he doesn’t score doesn’t mean he’s not a top player.”
Kopitar was a top player in many ways Thursday.
With his teammates invigorated from the outset and bashing anything that moved, Kopitar scored the Kings’ first goal by prodding home the rebound of a shot by Kyle Clifford that had bounced in front.
He also had his third straight successful game in the faceoff circle, a key contribution to a team that has lost faceoff ace Jarret Stoll to a concussion. Kopitar won 14 of 24 faceoffs to help the Kings maintain possession of the puck and, finally, wear down goaltender Antti Niemi and the Sharks.
The Kings’ first line had not been first-rate, and Sutter on Thursday decided to reconfigure three of his lines to get more physicality and more potential scoring punch. Putting the rugged Clifford on the left side with Kopitar and Williams worked well, and all three figured in that first goal.
Kopitar got the puck along the boards and got it back to Rob Scuderi, at the left point. Scuderi passed it to Clifford, who had come back out toward the blue line after defenseman Slava Voynov ventured deep into the zone. Clifford’s shot was touched in front by Williams before the puck came to Kopitar, by the left post.
It wasn’t an end-to-end rush or a grand spectacle, but his goal with 1:52 left in the second period was exactly what the Kings needed at that moment.
Voynov later extended their lead to 2-0 in the first minute of the third period after Trevor Lewis bested Joe Thornton on a faceoff — no easy feat — and Jeff Carter completed the scoring into an empty net with 31.2 seconds left. Jonathan Quick took care of the rest, stopping 13 shots in the third period and 24 overall for the win that lifted him past Kelly Hrudey to a club-record 27th playoff triumph.
But it couldn’t have happened without Kopitar’s opening the floodgates.
“We were pressing pretty good. We had some plays going and some momentum in their zone,” Kopitar said. “To score that late in the period, it’s pretty good. You definitely want to go into the third period with a lead.”
It’s even better to come out of the third period with a lead.
The Kings hold a 3-2 series edge, but the home team has won each of the first five games and Game 6 will be in San Jose. Without Kopitar’s efforts Thursday, though, they might have been on the brink of summer instead of a win away from the West finals.
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