EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – Dustin Brown caught the hockey world’s attention early in the Los Angeles Kings’ incredible playoff run. Now it’s Anze Kopitar getting the international notice that often eludes West Coast players, and his teammates couldn’t be happier.
Kopitar has 18 points in the post-season, including 14 in the Kings’ last 11 games. With a goal and an assist in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals, the NHL’s first Slovenian player moved into a tie with New Jersey’s Ilya Kovalchuk as the post-season’s leading scorer.
“He’s pretty amazing,” Kings centre Mike Richards said Tuesday. “I’d put him top-five, top-three in the league with his skill level and everything he does. He’s a laid-back guy who doesn’t like the spotlight too much. He probably enjoys being out here where you don’t get that much attention, and you can just do your thing.”
With eight goals, Kopitar is tied with Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux and Danny Briere as the post-season’s leading goal-scorer. He even shares the league lead in plus-minus with Brown, who’s also plus-15.
Kopitar is getting every defence’s attention, but he has contributed splendidly throughout the post-season. The Kings’ leading scorer in the regular season is even more motivated after missing last year’s first-round playoff series loss to San Jose when he broke his ankle with seven games left in the regular season.
“You have to win in this league to get recognized,” Kopitar said. “That’s what good players are going to do. Right now, it’s a lot of fun to play in this environment, on this stage.”
Brown permanently made the Kings’ roster one year before Kopitar, but they’ve been paired in the Kings’ plans and in fans’ minds since 2006. Once considered the young core of Los Angeles’ distant future, they’ve led the Kings through the post-season by growing into responsibility as leaders, elite scorers and linemates with Justin Williams.
“Me and Anze have been pretty close since the day we got here,” Brown said. “We’ve been friends, and we’ve played together for our whole careers. … It was about a year or two ago you saw something different in him, both from a defensive standpoint and physically. The first couple of years, he’d go in the corner and get knocked around a little bit. Now he goes into the corner and comes out with the puck.”
The 24-year-old Kopitar has already played six seasons with the Kings, who drafted him in 2005 and brought him over from a club team in Sweden in 2006. Kopitar scored two goals in his NHL debut, skating around Anaheim defenceman Chris Pronger for the first score with a move that still thrills Brown nearly six years later.
Kopitar’s physical maturation in the past two seasons has been impressive. The former finesse forward now handles the puck along the boards with a command that recalls fellow California NHL stars Joe Thornton and Ryan Getzlaf, fighting off defences with his size and agility.
“Ever since my first day in the league, Kopi has been surprising me every day with something new,” Kings defenceman Drew Doughty said. “I’ve never seen a player who’s that good on his backhand, and that’s just the start of his skills. He’s got something new all the time, and he’s a big reason we’re here.”
SYKORA’S TURN: Few NHL players have more experience in the Stanley Cup finals than Petr Sykora, and the New Jersey Devils might be ready to give him a chance.
Sykora expects to be in the lineup for Game 4 on Wednesday night after sitting out the first three games of the finals as a healthy scratch. The two-time NHL champion hasn’t played since Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals on May 19.
“It’s not my decision,” Sykora said. “I just try to stay in shape and be as positive as possible for the guys that are playing. It looks like I’m playing, but you never know. This is my sixth final, so I should be ready to go.”
Indeed, the Czech forward has appeared in five finals during a 16-season NHL career that includes 10 seasons with 20 goals.
He made it with the Devils in 2000—winning the Cup that year despite getting hurt in the clincher—and 2001 before advancing with Anaheim in 2003. He made the finals with Pittsburgh in 2008 and again in 2009, although he was a scratch for much of that playoff campaign before sitting out the Penguins’ victory in Game 7 with a foot injury from blocking a shot.
“He’s an option for us,” Devils coach Peter DeBoer said. “We’re going to consider him. We haven’t scored. He’s a guy that doesn’t need a lot of looks to stick one in the net. That’s what he does best, so he’s definitely an option.”
Sykora had 44 points while playing in all 82 regular-season games in his return to the Devils this season, but has just two goals and two assists in 15 playoff games.
“I never put pressure on myself scoring, because you never know,” Sykora said. “It doesn’t matter who scores. We just have to win tomorrow.”
GAGNE FELT GOOD: Simon Gagne only played just over six minutes of Game 3, but the Kings forward was grateful to be in the lineup.
Gagne played for the first time since Dec. 26, when he incurred his latest concussion.
“I feel pretty good, and it means a lot to be in the Stanley Cup final,” Gagne said. “I’ve been here before, so it feels great to get another chance.”
Gagne made the finals in 2010 with Philadelphia, alongside current Kings teammates Richards and Jeff Carter.
“He’s been my teammate for a long, long while, so it probably gave us a little extra jump to see him in the lineup,” Richards said. “Something like that was nice to see. We talked a little bit, but it’s just another hockey game for him.”
Kings coach Darryl Sutter wouldn’t commit to keeping Gagne in the lineup for Game 4. Gagne replaced Brad Richardson, who played in 13 of Los Angeles’ first 15 playoff games.
MUSTACHE MAN: Rookie Adam Henrique is trying to spark the Devils with a tonsorial adjustment.
Henrique has shaved off his beard, leaving him with a bristly moustache for Game 4. He got the inspiration from teammate Ryan Carter, who also sports a look that could get him a job with the California Highway Patrol if this hockey thing doesn’t work out.
“I told Ryan I’d join him at some point,” said Henrique, who scored the series-ending overtime goal that won the Eastern Conference for the Devils last month. “What better time than now to try to get something going?”