EL SEGUNDO, CA — At this time last year, the Los Angeles Kings were basking in the glory of their first Stanley Cup Championship in what was then the 45-year history of the franchise.
The team raced through the playoffs, earning an astounding 16-4 record, including ten straight road victories, and they accomplished all that by staying healthy, and getting contributions from everyone in the lineup. But as the old saying goes, a team’s best players have to be their best players in order to achieve post-season success, and that is exactly what the Kings got from goaltender Jonathan Quick, defenseman Drew Doughty, and forwards Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar.
But one year later, the Boston Bruins and the Chicago Blackhawks are in the 2013 Stanley Cup Final, which begins tonight in Chicago. Indeed, the Kings failed to defend their Stanley Cup Championship after being eliminated in the Western Conference Final by the Blackhawks in five games, and in a more convincing fashion than the game scores may have indicated.
In similar fashion to the 2012 Kings, this year’s Blackhawks team got contributions from more than just their top players, Corey Crawford was outstanding in goal, and they were healthy—all that was apparent during the Western Conference Final against the Kings.
Although the Kings got outstanding goaltending from Quick (despite some soft goals, his numbers were still stellar), they struggled to score goals, and as suspected, they were a beaten up, banged up team.
“We had three or four guys who were game time decisions after Game 6 in San Jose, literally,” said head coach Darryl Sutter. “I think most teams are going to say that, the farther you go. But it also tells you how tough it is to win.”
“You’ve got to stay healthy,” added Sutter. “You have to be as close to 100 percent, especially your top guys, and I know we weren’t.”
Indeed, this year’s playoffs were a grueling, physical grind for the Kings, nowhere near their run to the Stanley Cup Championship last season.
“Physically, it was one of the most grueling [playoffs], just with the first series, how physical it was, and the second series going to seven games,” said center Mike Richards. “[It was] the most physically draining [post-season in his career].”
Despite the fact that they were pretty badly banged up, the Kings steadfastly refused to use their injury status as an excuse.
“[We were banged up, just] like any other playoff team,” said President/General Manager Dean Lombardi. “There were numerous guys, who were not made public, who were banged up. But I think [when] you start throwing out the names of the guys who got hurt, I think it sends a bad message.”
“I’m not in favor of putting out a list, and saying all those guys were hurt,” added Lombardi. “It sounds like an excuse. The only thing that matters is that their teammates know who was hurt, and how badly they showed they wanted to win this thing, and play through [whatever was ailing them], and some of them were injured, let alone hurt.”
“It’s not that I’m trying to keep injuries from you. It’s just that I don’t think that’s what this team is all about. They’re not looking for excuses in any way.”
Lombardi’s star goaltender agreed.
“There’s no need to reveal anything you were going through [in terms of injuries,” said Quick. “It’s a grind, but everybody’s dealing with that. You’re playing every other night. If you think of it as a grind, that’s going to make it more difficult. You’ve got to think of it as the season. That’s what it is every year. Even last year, it [wasn’t] as condensed, but what’s the difference? One game a week, every other week? That’s what the season is. That’s what hockey is. You’ve got to prepare yourself. If you use an excuse that it’s a grind, you probably won’t play for very long.”
Lombardi pointed out that his team gutted things out during the playoffs, a concept his team has learned in recent years.
“Unfortunately, the playoffs, as we’re learning—that’s part of their learning,” he said. “Learning to play hurt versus injured. I can guarantee you [that] all twenty of those guys understand that concept.”
Even though Lombardi declined to provide details in an interview on June 10, after losing Game 5 in Chicago, some of the Kings’ injuries began to see the light of day.
Right wing Justin Williams revealed that he suffered a slightly separated shoulder when he was hit by San Jose Sharks defenseman Brad Stuart in the second round; Doughty suffered a sprained ankle against the Sharks; Jarret Stoll, who suffered a concussion early in the series against San Jose when he was hit by Sharks winger Raffi Torres, also suffered a separated shoulder from that hit; Richards suffered a concussion early in the third round against Chicago; defenseman Robyn Regher suffered an arm injury late in the regular season and underwent surgery to repair the problem on June 10; and Brown suffered a torn posterior cruciate ligament in his knee during Game 6 of the San Jose series.
Brown was able to play with the torn ligament, but…
“[The injury resulted in] inhibition, [and it affected] firing, power, push-off,” he noted. “There’s a lot of inflammation. The pain level wasn’t too bad, unless I did certain things. But it wasn’t anything I couldn’t play with. If it was the regular season, I don’t think I would’ve played with it. I still thought I could be effective in most areas of the game, and find a way to contribute. But there were some limitations.”
Anze Kopitar: Not Among NHL’s Elite…Yet
One point of discussion throughout the playoffs among the local media covering the Kings was whether or not Kopitar was suffering from an injury, either an aggravation of his existing knee injury (suffered while playing in Europe, just days before the end of National Hockey League lockout), or some other injury.
During this season’s playoffs, Kopitar looked nothing like the player who was mostly unstoppable during the 2012 playoffs, when he scored eight goals and added twelve assists for twenty points, tying Brown for the league lead in playoff scoring.
But in this year’s playoffs, although his defensive game remained strong, Kopitar’s offensive game almost completely disappeared, with just three goals and six assists for nine points in 18 games.
Furthermore, it was not just the results where Kopitar’s game was lacking. Indeed, that explosive first step, the strength on the puck, the ability to protect the puck along the boards and in the corners—all were, rather shockingly, gone from his game.
So apparent were the problems with Kopitar’s game that they led to the speculation that he was injured. It seemed to be the only fathomable explanation. In fact, the murmurs about him being injured continued throughout the playoffs. But once the Kings were eliminated from the post-season, Kopitar denied that he had suffered a “significant” injury.
“[Regarding] being injured during these playoffs, there were no significant injuries that I suffered,” he said. “I was just banged up a little bit, a few bumps and bruises. That’s about it.”
As for his knee, it’s better, not worse. He will not even need surgery.
“There’s not going to be any surgery necessary,” said Kopitar. “In fact, I just talked to Chris [Kingsley, the Kings’ head athletic trainer] today, and our doctor. I can get rid of the knee brace, too, so I guess I’m getting back to no discomfort, good strength in my knee. I should be fine.”
If he was not injured, how does he explain such a prolonged slump, one that began in late March, in which he scored just three goals in 34 games (16 regular season games and 18 playoff contests)?
“There’s no secret to it, we needed more from me, in terms of production, this post-season,” Kopitar admitted. “I honestly wish I could put my finger on something, and do it differently, but I guess one of the cold streaks came at the wrong time.”
Brown’s injury, not to mention Williams and his separated shoulder, certainly didn’t help Kopitar with his struggles.
“I wasn’t happy with my production on the offensive side of things,” said Brown. “I think I could definitely have contributed more than I did. [Kopitar and I] have had this talk. Both of us struggled, from a statistical standpoint, and that’s frustrating for players who want to be difference makers, and [Kopitar and I] are definitely those type of players.”
“I’m definitely frustrated because of it, but that’s the way it goes sometimes,” Kopitar indicated. “Now it’s a matter of me working, mentally, not just to prepare for these kinds of moments, but to not stretch them out for too long, getting out of the slump quicker, and not feeling too down.”
Kopitar was not only frustrated with his slump, but he admitted that it weighed on him quite a bit.
“Any guy will tell you that you feel a little down,” said Kopitar. “You’re working hard, and the results are not coming. It gets frustrating. Being the competitive guy that I am, I want to perform every night, and it just wasn’t going. Feeling down was part of that, [along with] a little frustration.”
“It’s not lack of caring, or not trying,” added Kopitar. “In fact, sometimes you try even harder, and it backfires on you. Maybe that was the case. But again, for me, it’s a matter of evaluating things like that, and learning from it for the future, trying to get rid of those slumps, and definitely not drag them out too long.”
As mentioned earlier, Kopitar was virtually unstoppable during last season’s playoffs. He was a threat on every shift, he made his teammates better, he scored some highlight-reel goals, and he was just as effective in the defensive zone.
Kopitar was, arguably, the best forward in the playoffs last season. He had elevated his play during the 2012 playoffs so much that at the end of last year’s playoffs, there was a lot of talk, both locally and around the league, that Kopitar had earned admission into the NHL’s elite players club.
But after such a long slump—it should be noted that Kopitar seems to have an extended scoring slump every season—after being a key reason that the Kings struggled mightily in every playoff series this season, and ultimately, losing in decisive fashion in the Western Conference Final, Kopitar showed that he is not one of the NHL’s elite.
Not yet, anyway.
But even though Kopitar’s underwhelming playoff performance is anything but a high point in his NHL career, that does not mean he has gone off track—he could still end up at elite status, and it might not take him long to get there.
“Is he banged up? Yes,” Lombardi said about Kopitar. “But I think it’s just another case, like the team. He’s a microcosm of all the things we’re about. It’s a different mindset, not only for your team, but for the players, and clearly, your top players.”
Lombardi indicated that Kopitar simply didn’t handle the more focused attention he got from opposing teams well.
“He’s on the West Coast here, and until he scored that goal [during the first round of the 2012 playoffs] against St. Louis, [when he went in alone on Blues goaltender Brian Elliott, stopped, moved the puck to his left, and slipped the puck into the net for a highlight-reel goal], people didn’t know who he was,” Lombardi noted. “Heck, maybe even the other teams didn’t know who he was. This year? One of the by-products of that is him, Doughty, and Quick—they get circled [on a team’s dry ink board before a game].”
“Now you’re going to draw the toughest assignments,” Lombardi added. “You’re going to draw [top defensemen like St. Louis blue liners Alex] Pietrangelo and [Jay] Bouwmeester on the back end. Just like the team faced different challenges, the players faced different challenges, and it was harder on him, just like it was harder on the team.”
Despite not dealing well with being a focal point for the opposition’s defensive efforts, Lombardi indicated that Kopitar is still learning and improving.
“This kid, like Drew, and so many others, he is far from having maximized his potential,” Lombardi emphasized. “I have no doubt he’s going to figure it out. He just had a different challenge that he never experienced before in his career.”
“I’ve got the utmost faith that he’s going to think, ‘you know what? I realize what this is all about. If I’m going to be a top player in this league for a long time, that goes with the turf,’” Lombardi added.
Lombardi also pointed out that Kopitar knows he has to improve, and not just for his own, personal reasons.
“[This team has] two things going for them, this group, and people underestimate this,” Lombardi explained. “In this day and age, we all see it in all these sports. We’ve got all the drama, and everything else. [But] when you have twenty guys who give a damn about each other, and are competitors, you’ve really got something special, and that’s what these guys are.”
“Kopitar knows that not only does he want to do it, but he wants to do it for the guys sitting next to him, and I think that goes for all of them.”
Stick tap to LA Kings Insider Jon Rosen, who contributed to this story.
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