On March 27, in a game against the Colorado Avalanche, Anze Kopitar was helped off the ice with 4:21 left in the second period. For LA Kings’ fans, time stood still in that moment. The smiles that accompanied a 2-0 lead transitioned to disbelief and shock.
Kopitar at that time led the team in goals, assists and points. He was a stalwart at both ends of the ice – the quarterback on the powerplay, a penalty killer, a player counted upon to score goals, play the physical game, shut down the opposing team’s top line while lighting them up at the same time. Would his absence mean the end of the LA Kings’ season, especially when the Kings had also lost the other one-third of their top line just a couple of games before in Justin Williams?
“He’s our best player,” said Dustin Brown about Kopitar after that believed fateful game. “We’ve got to find a way, either way. Injuries happen during the year. You don’t want to have your best player go down, but if that’s the case, we need to shoulder the responsibility collectively and find a way. No other team is going to feel sorry for us.” But could the Kings push toward the playoffs without their leading scorer and top line right wing? “We’ll maybe find out what we’re made of. You have our top two scorers possibly out. That’s part of an 82-game schedule, and we have to find a way to keep going as a team.”
So said Dustin Brown then. Flash forward to today. What does the LA Kings’ captain say now?
“Everyone elevated their game,” Brown explained. “At that time, the race was so tight, a couple of games meant the difference between making the playoffs and missing it. Everybody in the locker room stepped up. From the first line to the fourth, defense and even Quickie who was already playing great for us.”
The Kings certainly defied the odds as many counted the team out after Kopitar went down for what was estimated at that time to be six weeks with a broken ankle. Yet, here they are. Firmly in control of this series, still playing the kind of suffocating team defense that kept their first round opponent to an average of 21 shots per game and in this series so far to a four game average of 20 as they hold a commanding 3-1 series lead. “We are a defense first team,” said defenseman Jack Johnson. “We knew if we took care of our own end and focused on playing a good team game, the offense would come, almost take care of itself.”
Has it ever.
Though the Kings struggled during the season to score goals, it seemed after Justin Williams’ and Anze Kopitar’s injuries, the forwards went on a goals by committee mindset. Last night’s game was a good example, as each of the four goals came from four different players in Ryan Smyth, Jarret Stoll, the surging Trevor Lewis and unexpected Matt Greene.
Of course, the questions are still asked. Can they keep it up? “We take it one shift at a time. Pay attention to the details and make sure we don’t give them an inch of room to operate,” Willie Mitchell proclaimed. “When we have the puck in their zone, it’s a shot mentality, just as Terry has preached to us from day one. The message is clear to everyone. Get the shots on net with traffic in front. It’s the playoffs. Dirty goals win hockey games.” Willie Mitchell, generally not known for offense, has put up impressive numbers with 3 goals and 4 assists in this series. He put in two goals and had five assists in the first round, including the series winner in game six. Kings’ coach, Terry Murray, talked about Mitchell and his team’s overall play. “It’s been a real test of character for us. We could have folded the tents and called it a season, but nobody was ready to do that. I saw a close locker room get closer. It wasn’t without a few bumps here or there but when the playoffs started, everyone took their game to another level. It’s a credit to the team and the organization.”
Coach Murray was asked how the Kings, who with a victory tomorrow night can advance to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since the 1992-1993 season, can sustain their elevated play. “There’s no how about it. We are playing hard, heavy hockey out there. That’s our game. When we play our game, we are very hard to beat. We win the board battles, we create turnovers, we limit our own mistakes, especially in our own end, we get shots on goal with net presence and we do it often. When you look at Jonathan Quick and when we have faltered, he has been there to save us and the guys to a man have refocused and gotten back to our game. So, it’s just doing what we know we can do. Nothing changes.”
One thing may change. Justin Williams has been skating and may be ready to return to the lineup as early as tomorrow or, if there is a game six, on Saturday. Anze Kopitar is currently expected to join the team at some point in the third round. That would restore the two missing pieces back in the lineup and make the Los Angeles Kings an even greater force with which to be reckoned on the road to the Stanley Cup Finals.