LOS ANGELES AND EL SEGUNDO, CA — After handing the struggling San Jose Sharks a 5-2 drubbing at Staples Center in Los Angeles on March 20, the Los Angeles Kings moved back into the playoff picture, landing in the eighth spot in the Western Conference, at least for a short while.
Indeed, while the Sharks have faltered of late, the Kings have surged, earning a rather spectacular 9-3-0 record since February 25.
The primary reason? The addition of scoring forward Jeff Carter has not only added some desperately needed scoring to their lineup, but it has also brought balance to the forward lines, in terms of scoring, speed, and physical play, that the Kings have not been able to achieve in recent memory.
That balance has resulted in an offensive explosion, with the Kings scoring 42 goals in the twelve games that Carter has been in the lineup, an average of 3.50 goals per game, which would put the Kings atop the National Hockey League in goals scored if that was their season average, rather than their lowly ranking of 28th in the thirty-team NHL, averaging 2.29 goals per game.
Perhaps the greatest beneficiary of Carter’s presence on the Kings’ second line has been center Anze Kopitar, who has played like a superstar of late, scoring seven goals and adding seven assists for 14 points in the last twelve games. He has also scored four goals with three assists for seven points in his last four games, which includes a four-game goal scoring streak, tying a career-high.
“With Jeff in the lineup, he’s been giving us some scoring that we needed, and everybody else picked it up, too, including myself,” said Kopitar. “It’s fair to say the scoring has come around [for himself], and the playmaking ability is there. I’m a lot more relaxed out there than I was before, and that certainly helps.”
“[The game seems] a little slower,” added Kopitar. “When you’re going good, everything seems a little slower, and you have more time. [Lately], it’s been like that for me, and I want to keep scoring and winning. The confidence is there. Everything just feels better. The shot feels stronger, and more accurate.”
A big part of the difference is that with Carter in the lineup, opposing teams can no longer keep their top defensive line and best defensive pair on the ice against Kopitar’s line. Rather, they must often face the Dwight King – Mike Richards – Carter line, allowing the Dustin Brown – Kopitar – Justin Williams line to get favorable matchups on the ice much more often.
“Teams make game plans [regarding] whoever’s going to play against me, and whomever is going to play against Mike’s line,” Kopitar noted. “Maybe they do have to focus on two lines, where, in the past, they just had to focus on me. But that’s what we wanted. That’s why [Kings President/General Manager] Dean [Lombardi] brought Mike in, and Jeff at the deadline, and it’s been paying off.”
But even more critical to Kopitar’s superstar-like play in recent games is that he has elevated his game—it has taken a quantum leap forward, as he often takes the puck into the middle of the ice, the dangerous scoring areas, attacking the net, and he is looking to shoot the puck much more often.
“I guess it’s being in the right spot, at the right time, and getting those shots through,” he said. “Early in the year, I had my shots blocked a little too often, but now, I’m getting them through, and I’m finding the back of the net.”
“[I’m] just focusing on getting them there,” he added. “Sometimes, it’s not how hard you shoot it, but where you put it.”
Teammates have certainly stood up and taken notice.
“He’s more aggressive, he’s shooting more,” said center Jarret Stoll. “He’s not looking to dish off. You see him coming through the neutral zone, and he’s snapping pucks at the net.”
“Even if it’s just a shot on net, that starts stuff—rebounds,” added Stoll. “When you get the defensemen turning, facing their net, they don’t know where the rebound is going. Nobody really does. But if you’re coming in, putting them in that situation, it’s difficult for them.”
Williams recently spoke with Kopitar about shooting the puck.
“He’s taking more pucks to the net, and that goal in Anaheim [on March 16], when he came around, took the puck at [Ducks defenseman Lubomir] Visnovsky, and scored, and the other shorthanded goal [at Detroit on March 13]—I talked to him a couple of weeks ago,” Williams explained. “I said, those types of shots—when they weren’t going in—those are eventually going to go in. The shots through the defensemen, the shots off the wing. He’s got a really good shot.”
“Now, I think he believes that,” Williams elaborated. “He [has seen] a couple go in, and he’s really driving the net more. In turn, that’s giving him the confidence, knowing he can score from anywhere.”
Speaking of Kopitar’s shot…both Stoll and Williams were referring to Kopitar’s wrist shot, which is, arguably, one of the best in the NHL. Indeed, his last four goals have been wicked wrist shots from either the left or right circle, the last one coming from the inside portion of the left circle during a four-on-three power play against the Sharks on March 20.
“Kopitar made a great play,” said head coach Darryl Sutter. “It’s not unlike the play he made in the last game, when he came in off the wall, and made the goalie bite a little bit. That’s what he did [this time]. He changed the angle just a little bit, freezing him.”
Kopitar has been a streaky player throughout his NHL career, and has had some rather eye-popping hot streaks. But is this the best he has ever played?
“It’s certainly up there,” Williams noted. “He’s had some great starts to the season. It’s 82 games. There’s a lot of ups and downs. For a lot of guys on this team, that, when their backs are against the wall, their true character comes out. Right now, he’s showing that he wants it. He’s carrying us, and getting us to where we want to be.”
Most notably, there is one, huge difference between Kopitar’s previous hot streaks and this one. Earlier hot streaks all came much earlier during the regular season. This season, he never really hit much of a hot streak at all, until now, during the most important, the most pressure-packed time of the season…the playoff stretch drive, when everything matters, and every little play is critical, magnified by a factor of 1,000.
“At the start of last year, he was almost tops in the league in scoring, points-wise,” Stoll stressed. “But this is tight hockey right now. This is tough hockey, and for him to be playing like this, at this stage of the game, that’s a different story.”
“He’s totally carrying us, leading us,” Stoll added. “When you see him carrying the puck, coming through the neutral zone like that, I can only imagine what defensemen are thinking. It’s got to be tough to stop that guy, and it is right now.”
But as streaky as Kopitar has been throughout his NHL career, is this just another streak, where he stays hot for awhile, only to go back to playing on the perimeter, and going ice cold as a result?
Only time will tell. But Sutter pointed out that players like Kopitar need to take responsibility as the team’s leaders.
“We need that from them in every game, every practice,” said Sutter. “That’s what they’re supposed to bring. They’re not just offensive princesses. They have to [be leaders over the entire] 200-foot [length of the ice], in practice, off the ice, on the ice. They have to be that in order for our team to be productive. That’s a responsibility they want, and it’s a responsibility they need.”
“You need a lot out of those guys. It’s simple. That’s the only way we’re going to make the playoffs, that’s if those guys raise their games to another level. It’s not just based on offense. It’s based on the compete level of those guys.”
Only Kopitar knows if he will continue to be the streaky forward he has been throughout his career. But if his recent play is an indication that he has figured out that he would be virtually unstoppable if he uses his elite level skills, along with his size, strength and speed, to consistently attack the middle of the ice and shoot the puck, the Kings could become just that…unstoppable.
Raw Audio Interviews: Los Angeles Kings Morning Skate, March 20, 2012
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Jeff Carter (2:32)
Darryl Sutter (7:10)
Raw Audio Interviews: San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings, March 20, 2012
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Anze Kopitar (6:25)
Darryl Sutter (6:38)
Raw Audio Interviews: Los Angeles Kings Practice, March 21, 2012
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