LOS ANGELES AND EL SEGUNDO, CA — Following the 2013 Western Conference Final, when the Chicago Blackhawks unceremoniously bounced the Los Angeles Kings out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in five games, one thing was crystal-clear…
…Kings star center Anze Kopitar was nothing close to the unstoppable Anze Kopitar who shared the National Hockey League playoff scoring title with teammate Dustin Brown (eight goals, twelve assists for twenty points) in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, when the Kings won the Stanley Cup.
In fact, Kopitar’s paltry three goals and six assists for nine points in 18 playoff games last season was a far cry from his performance in the 2012 playoffs. Moreover, that explosive first step, the strength on the puck, the ability to protect it along the boards and in the corners—all those trademarks of Kopitar’s game were missing in action.
Last season, Kopitar’s prolonged slump began in late March, and extended 34 games, including the post-season. His shockingly poor performance led to widespread speculation that he was injured—it seemed the only logical explanation.
However, Kopitar denied that he had suffered any significant injury during or prior to the 2013 post-season.
After his tremendous play in the 2012 playoffs, Kopitar seemed to elevate himself into elite status among NHL players. But that changed after the 2013 playoffs. After all, elite NHL players do not go into 34-game slumps at the most critical time of the season—Kopitar’s poor performance dropped him out of the elite category.
But a little less than one year later, if his performance during the 2013-14 regular season is any indication, Kopitar seems to be determined to bulldoze his way back into the elite players club, despite the fact that his 29 goals and 41 assists for 70 points are not his best numbers for a season (best season was in 2009-10, when he scored 34 goals and added 47 assists for 81 points).
As the saying goes, it’s more than just goals and assists, and this season, Kopitar has put it all together, often times with dominating performances in all three zones.
“I think he’s gotten better every year,” said forward and captain Dustin Brown. “I don’t know where his point totals are. I don’t really look at points, but from a standpoint of the impact he’s had on this team, this [season] is probably the biggest impact he’s had, not only from the 200-foot game he plays, but [scoring] big goals at big times.”
“Last game [against Anaheim on April 12], was a good example—two goals in the third when we needed two goals,” added Brown. “That’s probably the next step in his progression. He’s always been a solid player. What he did [so often] this year was find a way to change the game at the right time.”
Center Jarret Stoll echoed Brown’s comments.
“The game, from below our goal line, to the game at their net, it’s a full game from him, all the time,” Stoll noted. “He’s very consistent, not that he wasn’t before, but he’s been dominating, at some points. The last game, he just took over the game, and tied it up for us. There’s been many games like that this year.”
Kopitar was named as the team’s 2013-14 Most Valuable Player, and deservedly so.
“He’s had a really good regular season,” said head coach Darryl Sutter. “Clearly, the MVP of our team, for sure, in the regular season. He’s played the last little bit like he’s getting ready for the next step.”
Indeed, unlike last season, Kopitar seems to be peaking at just the right time.
“[Peaking now] is a good thing, [but] it definitely wasn’t my intention to get hot [now],” he said. “You want to play at your best, at all times, as much as you can. But it does feel a little bit better [going] into the playoffs with the streak I’ve been on.”
After returning from the Olympic break, Kopitar has scored twelve goals and has contributed eleven assists for 23 points, with a +10 plus/minus rating and eight penalty minutes in 23 games.
Over that span, the Kings earned a 15-6-2 record (.696 points percentage).
“It’s perfect timing,” said Stoll. “He brings it all the time. He knows what he brings to this team, and how he needs to play. He’s going to be ready to go [for the playoffs].”
Contributing to Kopitar’s and the Kings’ surge has been left wing Marian Gaborik, acquired in a trade deadline deal from the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Since he was acquired, Gaborik has made more than the desired impact while playing on a line with Kopitar and right wing Justin Williams. In 19 games, he has scored five goals and added eleven assists for 16 points, with a +7 plus/minus rating and four penalty minutes.
“I knew, just from watching [Gaborik], and having him burn us the first couple of years, a lot of times, I knew he was very fast,” said Kopitar. “He’s got a great release, a great shot. Once he came here, you just tried to get to know him as quickly as you could, and build some chemistry. I think Marian, Justin and I have done a pretty good job [at that]. It seems like we’ve jelled together pretty well.”
“I think all three of us want to play a give-and-go game, and he’s certainly the type of player who likes to do that,” added Kopitar. “We’ve talked about it, so I guess the offensive zone time, when we’re in there, it’s a lot of mixing around, a lot of cycling and trying to create chances off that.”
Brown emphasized that even though Gaborik is touted as a sniper, his playmaking ability has been critical to the Kings’ success.
“Everyone here knows how good a player he is,” said Brown. “Trading for Gaborik—he’s a big name. You don’t really realize the little details of the game [that he brings to the team]. The one thing that stands out is that everyone knew him as a goal scorer, and how fast he was. But his playmaking ability is really good.”
That playmaking ability contributed to Kopitar earning the team’s 2013-14 goal scoring title for just the third time, in addition to the team’s overall scoring title, which he has won every year since his rookie season in 2007-08.
Brown indicated that Kopitar being the team’s leading goal scorer, not just their overall scoring leader, is significant, but not overly so.
“Ultimately, it’s a positive,” said Brown. “Over the last five or six years, maybe even this year, the top three, four or five guys have all been the same. Kopitar has always been in that mix, but I’m sure he’s been at the top once or twice. But we don’t rely too heavily on one guy to do all the scoring.”
“Maybe last year, with [Jeff] Carter—there wasn’t a lot of goal scoring in 48 games,” added Brown. “But it was [Carter and I] up there. But that’s what makes us successful. It doesn’t have to be Kopitar or Carter.”
Doesn’t seem to be any doubt about that. Nevertheless, Kopitar tried to deflect the praise.
“Points-wise, I’ve had better years,” said Kopitar. “Plus/minus—this has been, by far, the best year for me. We’ve won the [William M.] Jennings Trophy [awarded to the goaltenders having played a minimum of 25 games for the team with the fewest goals scored against it during the regular season], so that’s great for the whole team. But personally, the big goal is to make the playoffs and what I can do to help the team win.”
“Whether it’s winning a face-off in the last minute, trying to score on the power play at a crucial time in a game, or make a defensive play, it really doesn’t matter, as long as, at the end of the night, the two points are in the bank,” added Kopitar.
But then, Kopitar admitted that even he thought he had a very good season.
“I do feel that this was one of the strongest seasons for me, and I feel comfortable where I am right now,” he said.
At his current level of play, Kopitar will easily earn his way back amongst the NHL’s elite players if he continues to perform at pace throughout the post-season.
“Kopitar—he’s not having a career year, but in reality, I think it’s the best year of his career,” said Brown.
“We know what we’ve got in Kopi,” said Stoll. “We’re lucky to have him and happy to have him. We’re going to need him, among [all the] other guys, to win [in the first round].”
Stoll probably won’t need to worry. Assuming Jonathan Quick provides the expected standout goaltending, if Kopitar proves to be unstoppable once again during the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs…
…well, you know.
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