Hockey / Sports

Kings' Anze Kopitar is the ultimate two-way player

LOS ANGELES--The coach's words were firm and his tone suggested he wasn't asking the impossible of someone he knows well.

Kings center Anze Kopitar is leading NHL playoff scorers with 24 points in 22 games and has been instrumental in the run that has brought the Kings to a 1-0 lead over the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup Final, but he hasn't scored a goal in eight games and his points lead over teammate Jeff Carter has shrunk to one. The coach expects more.

"Now he's a little quiet so he needs to step up," the coach said in his gravelly voice. "If he wants to keep this position you need to produce and score goals. He knows that. I don't need to tell him."

The coach in this instance wasn't Kings bench boss Darryl Sutter. The critique -- which was followed by an affectionate smile -- came from Kopitar's father, Matjaz, who coached Anze and Team Slovenia to their first-ever Olympic hockey victories earlier this year at the Sochi Games.

It's unlikely you'll ever hear harsh words about Kopitar from Sutter, an admirer of the 26-year-old center's commitment at both ends of the ice.

"He never has a bad game," Sutter said Friday, as the Kings prepared to play Game 2 on Saturday at Staples Center.

Although TV announcers still mangle his name, NHL observers recognized Kopitar's talents and voted him a finalist for the Selke Trophy, given to the league's top defensive player. Kopitar enhanced his image on progressively bigger stages by outdueling Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks, Ryan Getzlaf of the Ducks, and Jonathan Toews of the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks as the Kings reached the Cup Final for the second time in three seasons.

Linemate Dustin Brown said Kopitar's defensive play against Toews, who scored once in the last four games of the Chicago series, was crucial to the Kings' victory in the West finals.

"Each year he's gotten better and this is just an extension of that," said Brown, who shared the 2012 playoff scoring lead with Kopitar with eight goals and 20 points in 20 games and identical plus-16 ratings.

"More so now, I think the Chicago series is a prime example of what Kopi is about, going up against a premier center who had a good series. But at the end of the day what I think allows us to win that series is Kopi saws off Toews. And our depth can find ways to help us win games."

Kopitar said he hasn't done anything to boost his playoff production.

"I think Darryl will be the first one to tell you when you take care of defense, offensive chances come. You try to take care of your own zone and when it's there you've got to make plays," Kopitar said. "For us I think the best thing is to keep the puck in the offensive zone, and that's what we want to do. I don't want to play defense. I don't want to play in my zone. But if we do have the puck they don't have it, and it's much more fun for us and we're more effective that way."

Kopitar, Brown and left wing Marian Gaborik were scoreless in the Kings' 3-2 overtime victory in Game 1. Kopitar and Gaborik were on the ice for the short-handed goal by Carl Hagelin that gave the Rangers a 2-0 lead in the first period, and each was minus-1 defensively. Kopitar and Gaborik often found themselves facing the premier shutdown duo of defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi, no easy task.

Brown said the line must take control more Saturday, and Kopitar acknowledged the Kings initially were taken aback by the Rangers' speed.

"I think the biggest thing for us is make sure we don't give them the opportunity to use that speed," Kopitar said. "They're good players. They're going to make plays. We just have to limit those that come off our mishandles, our sloppy play."

Despite his excellence, Kopitar probably will always remain somewhat under the radar. He was overshadowed Friday by teammate Justin Williams, who scored the winner in Game 1 and drew an overflow media throng that blocked Kopitar's neighboring seat in the team's locker room. So Kopitar, rated by Wayne Gretzky the league's third-best player behind Sidney Crosby and Toews, moved quietly to the unoccupied stall of backup goaltender Martin Jones.

No matter. Individual recognition isn't high on Kopitar's wish list. "I don't think anybody in here cares about that too much," he said. "We have one goal in mind, and we're striving toward that."

He's bringing them closer. No coach has to worry about him stepping up at the right time at either end of the ice.

(c)2014 Los Angeles Times

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