Kopitar leading Kings back to Stanley Cup form
Kopitar and the Kings (continued)
Rumors of the Kings' abdication of their throne have proved to be inaccurate. I had to stay up late Wednesday night to witness it with weary eyes and lots of caffeine, but I saw the defending Stanley Cup champions execute the Darryl Sutter game plan the same way they did last spring. Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock calls it their "heavy" game.
Every NHL highlights show from Wednesday's action featured -- or should have -- Anze Kopitar's terrific game-winning goal against the Red Wings, a virtuoso display of skating and stickhandling late in the third period that gave the Kings a 2-1 victory. However, no highlights show can present everything Kopitar did prior that goal --- his checking, his defensive awareness, his passing, his effort --- to make this victory possible.
And It was no ordinary win for Los Angeles. It was a tough match in which the Kings had to reverse the game's momentum, survive a fluke goal that went in off goaltender Jonathan Bernier's head, and claw their way back after being outplayed for two periods. They turned it around to some degree because they are big and they play nasty. Jake Muzzin cut Dan Cleary's face on a board check that Cleary claimed included a high stick, and Dustin Penner dropped Brendan Smith, who didn't have the puck, with a drive-by hit that wrenched the Red Wings defenseman's shoulder. Neither was penalized (Penner certainly should have been, and you can watch the incident here), but that's how the Kings play hockey.
Even more so, they benefited from the continued all-around excellence of Kopitar, who does both exceptional and subtle things to change a game's flow. It will sound like heresy to some, but Kopitar must be included in any discussion of the best player in the NHL, right there with Sidney Crosby and Pavel Datsyuk -- who both play far more games in the Eastern Time Zone, and consequently get more attention.
In this head-to-head matchup between Datsyuk and Kopitar, the Red Wings ace made some terrific plays. He also took some costly penalties, twice putting his team down two men, the second time leading to the tying goal. Kopitar set up that goal and scored the winner.
Like Datsyuk, Kopitar reveals his immense skill in small ways, often on the defensive side of the puck, blunting opposition attacks and transitioning to offense. The advantage that Kopitar may have over Datsyuk is size and physicality, an area in which he's started to assert himself more during the last couple of seasons. At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, Kopitar is four inches and about 30 pounds bigger than Detroit's No. 13 and he now uses every inch and ounce to his advantage.
Detroit had been the better team through the first two periods, but you had to figure that the Kings weren't going to surrender the final 20 minutes without some serious pushback. And I watched closely as Kopitar led the way.
On the first shift of the third period, he applies backside pressure and forces Cleary to take a weak shot at goaltender Jonathan Bernier, who held on for a whistle, a move designed to slow down the game's pace and the Wings' superior team speed.
On his second shift, Kopitar bumps Patrick Eaves behind the Kings' net, shaking the puck loose, killing Detroit's cycle, and starting the play the other way. The Wings get it back and Kopitar pressures Joakim Andersson along the boards into a bad pass, which the Kings recover. They work the puck behind Detroit's net. Kopitar cruises in to fight off two Wings and grab the puck, starting a cycle to Justin Williams, whose pass back to the point didn't result in much, but the tide is starting to turn.
During Kopitar's third shift, a turnover goes to Datsyuk, who appears to have a clear shot at Bernier. But Kopitar flies in from behind and, just as Datsyuk shoots, gets his stick across the Red Wing's arms, dampening the force of the shot. The period is barely four minutes old and Kopitar has taken control, but not yet in any obvious way.
On his fourth shift, he helps out on the penalty kill, getting in the lane to force Brendan Smith to shoot off to the side.
Midway through the period, with the Wings down two men, the Kings attempt to set up their scheme. Kopitar wins a quick battle with Henrik Zetterberg for a loose puck, which few can do, and although Zetterberg ties up his stick, Kopitar kicks the puck back to Drew Doughty and that starts the sequence of multiple passes that leads to the tying goal.
The whole game has now changed. The Kings have the momentum, and they're coming at Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard in waves. Kopitar does his part. With about six-and-a-half minutes remaining, he leads a rush into the zone, passes the puck off, gets it back, and drives through the slot toward the net, launching a backhander that Howard fights off. Kopitar finds the rebound, fights off Zetterberg with his arm, protecting the puck as he skates from behind the net up to the half-boards where he passes to Kings defenseman Keaton Ellerby, whose takes a point shot that Howard has to smother.
With about five minutes to go, Kopitar wins an offensive zone face-off, and the Kings go to work. The highlight goal is the result, one that comes from him poking the puck free along the boards and moving into open space, facing away from the net to get the pass. Now, he's able to get free because he knocks down Cory Emmerton to give himself a little space. Might have been a crosscheck or interference, but that's part of that heavy game that the Kings play. And with that open ice, Kopitar let his brilliant skills take over.
Quite a move.
And Kopitar wasn't done. On his next shift, with just over three minutes to go, he crashes the net as the puck arrives, keeping the pressure on Howard. Detroit gets it back and tries to start a breakout with Johan Franzen passing to Damien Brunner. But Kopitar, in hot pursuit, extends his stick and deflects the pass just enough so that it gets past the Detroit rookie and is gobbled up by Kings defenseman Rob Scuderi who starts the play back the other way, leading to another scoring chance by Trevor Lewis.
With 1:40 to go, Kopitar is back on the ice as Datsyuk drives through the neutral zone, zipping past Justin Williams and steaming over the blueline. But Kopitar catches up with him, leans into Datsyuk's shoulder, then, having slowed him up, leans his chest on Datsyuk's back, forcing the puck to squirt forward where Scuderi pulls it in. Before the shift has ended, Kopitar has picked up a loose puck in the slot and rushed it out of danger into the neutral zone, driving it into the Wings' end of the ice. Then, after another Detroit foray, he corrals yet another loose puck along the boards and bangs it off the glass out into the neutral zone. With about a minute to go, his work is done for the night.
The Kings have now won five straight and seven of their last eight. If you were expecting this Cup team to star in "The Hangover, Part III," think again. They may have begun the season looking like those bedraggled cinematic morning-after characters, but they've managed to shake off various calamities and start playing much more like the club that earned the big silver mug at the Staples Center last June.
Since Feb. 10, when they lost to the Wings in the dying seconds of a great Sunday matinee, the King have lifted themselves from the 13th spot, five points out of the playoffs, to fifth place, where they are in the midst of the Western Conference's typical mid-pack traffic jam. If the seemingly unstoppable Blackhawks maintain their staggeringly high level of play when the postseason roll around eight weeks from now, it's now a real possibility that Chicago will have to go through the revived Kings in order to get out of the West and play for the Stanley Cup.
Over the course of their five-game unbeaten run, Jeff Carter has scored a goal in each game. Dustin Brown is plus-four (after being minus-7 on the season). Lewis, who previously had no points, has five in the five games and is providing the kind of secondary scoring that any good team needs. Mike Richards, who behind Kopitar is easily the best second center in hockey, has four assists -- in fact, he's got eight points in the Kings' last eight games, coinciding with their turnaround.
So, Anze Kopitar is not the sole reason for this little hot streak. Hockey doesn't work that way. But the 25-year-old Slovenian does have eight points in his past four games and is plus-6. Starting with that late loss in Detroit, he's got 12 points in nine games, registering at least one in all but one match. On a club that still struggles to score, averaging slightly more than 2.5 goals per game, Kopitar is the most productive King, a point per game skater, and when you consider he missed the season opener finishing his rehab for a sprained knee and probably needed a few games to fully ramp up his play, you can only conclude he's raised his level of play to the point where he was last season. Plus he does all those wonderful little things.
And he's lifted his team in the process.