LOS ANGELES – Anze Kopitar got off to a slow start for the Los Angeles Kings, scoring in only two of his first 17 games after getting 32 goals last season.
He was so busy obeying first-year coach Terry Murray’s orders to shore up his defensive game that his best skills were sacrificed somewhat. But suddenly, his production has picked up. Kopitar extended his goal streak to a career-best four games with the go-ahead score, and the Kings beat the Minnesota Wild 4-3 on Saturday.
“On the offensive part, it’s a matter of time before it starts to work itself out. But I think he’s had a pretty good year on the checking part of the game,” Murray said.
“That was a big change for Kopitar. Whenever I’d come in to talk about responsibilities in out defensive zone away from the puck, he’d really do a tremendous job on focusing on playing below our goal line to help the defencemen. I believe in three guys breaking the puck out of the zone, and he’s there every time. So that was a change.”
Kopitar’s attitude toward playing a solid two-way game is no different from the rest of the players, all of whom have bought into Murray’s system and are doing more to help out goalies Jonathan Quick and Erik Ersberg.
“If you’re going to win and become a good team, you’ve got to be able to check and to keep the puck out of your net. And the whole team committed themselves to that part of the game right from the first day of training camp,” Murray said. “But the players really had no choice. They had to buy into that in order to get the minutes to satisfy their demands for ice time.”
Kyle Calder and Teddy Purcell also scored for the Kings and Kyle Quincey had a goal and an assist. Jonathan Quick made 21 saves after losing his previous three starts and giving up nine goals in his last two.
Owen Nolan, Stephane Veilleux and Eric Belanger scored for Minnesota in a matchup of teams coming off overtime wins after rallying from 3-0 deficits. The Wild, who didn’t get a power-play opportunity during their 4-3 win at San Jose on Thursday, were 0-for-2 with the man advantage.
Los Angeles swept the season series 4-0.
“They’re a working team and they play exactly the way we play,” Minnesota coach Jacques Lemaire said. “They’re on the puck and they’re really sound defensively. There’s not much difference in the two teams.”
Kopitar gave Los Angeles a 3-2 lead at 8:45 of the second period with his 23rd goal. Minnesota defenceman Martin Skoula lost control of the puck behind the net and Michal Handzus passed to Kopitar, who hesitated a moment before beating Niklas Backstrom high to the glove side from 25 feet.
“When you have a little hot streak, it seems like the puck is always coming to you,” Kopitar said. “Maybe they’re looking for me a little more, or I’m just in the right spot at the right time. Hopefully I’m going to keep going like this and keep contributing.”
Backstrom, playing his third game since signing a four-year, US$24-million contract extension, was benched at that point by Lemaire after facing just 13 shots.
“To be honest, I was thinking they were going to pull him after the first period,” Kopitar said. “But I guess the coach gave him kind of a second chance. But he’s a good goalie. Luckily for us, he just had a little off day.”
The change didn’t help Minnesota, because the Kings scored on their first shot against Josh Harding while Kim Johnsson was off for slashing Dustin Brown.
Purcell’s initial shot from the left circle hit Skoula’s skate, but the Kings’ rookie regained possession of the puck and whipped his third goal of the season past Harding’s stick for a 4-2 lead. Quincey’s assist on the goal was his team-high 26th point on the power play. All but two of them have come on assists.
“We like Quincey on the power play because he’s got a shot mentality, and he doesn’t hesitate,” Murray said. “Right from the first day he joined us, he seemed to have the knack of getting the puck to the net and the attitude of just shooting it.”
The Kings have scored at least once with the man advantage in 19 of their past 22 games, and are 26-for-100 during that stretch. The Wild came in with a league-best 88.1 percentage on the penalty kill, and they had allowed only two goals in 38 short-handed situations over the previous 10 games.
Minnesota’s Andrew Brunette got his second assist of Belanger’s 12th goal, which trimmed Los Angeles’ lead to 4-3 with 15:17 remaining.
Notes: Referee Rob Shick officiated his final game in the NHL after a 25-year career that began on April 6, 1986. He worked more than 1,300 games, including Games 2 and 5 of the 2001 Stanley Cup finals, the 1994 and 1997 all-star games, and a five-overtime marathon between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in Game 4 of the 2000 Eastern Conference semifinals. … Minnesota and the New York Islanders are the only teams in the league without a 20-goal scorer.