NEWARK, N.J. – Meet Anze Kopitar, one of the best players in the NHL who very few seem to know about.
The basics are simple. The 24-year-old Slovenian centre led the Los Angeles Kings in scoring for the fifth straight season, notching at least 25 goals each time. His career-high 51 assists this season were eighth-best in the league.
But when you keep a low profile and play hockey in Southern California, it is easy to avoid the spotlight. That is quickly changing as the Kings close in on their first Stanley Cup title.
“When we’re starting our games at 7:30 on the West Coast, a lot of people are sleeping,” linemate Justin Williams said Friday of the sixth-year forward. “In that aspect, he obviously flies under the radar. The important things are that we know how good he is. If the rest of the world wants to find out, they are doing it right now.”
Kopitar cut the Kings’ magic number to three when his overtime goal gave Los Angeles a 2-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils on Wednesday night in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals.
Not a bad way to thrust yourself into the public eye.
Before this year, Kopitar had played in only six NHL post-season games—posting two goals and three assists in 2010 when the Kings lost to Vancouver in the first round. He missed last year’s first-round loss to San Jose because of an ankle injury.
“Teams out West, for whatever reason, don’t have the same coverage that all the East teams do, so you don’t really hear too much about them,” forward Jeff Carter said. “He is definitely a guy that’s kind of building up his name here in the playoffs with the run he’s had.
“Not having played against him a lot, the Devils don’t really know his tendencies. You can watch all the video you want, but I think you have to get out there and actually play against him to actually realize what he can do and what he’s got.”
In 15 post-season games, Kopitar is tied with captain and linemate Dustin Brown for the team lead with seven goals and 16 points as the Kings have stormed to a 13-2 record. If people across North America didn’t take notice of the big centre before, it is impossible to miss him now.
The Kings were 15-6-3 when he scored a goal during the season, and they are 92-36-13 overall when he finds the net, dating to his debut in the 2006-07 season.
“He probably doesn’t like the attention very much, and goes about his business,” said Mike Richards, who is in his first season with the Kings following a stint in Philadelphia. “He comes to the rink every day, works hard. It might be a little surprising that a lot of guys in the East get more credit as hockey players than guys in the West, but he is definitely up there in the top five, top three.”
Kopitar, with his size and scoring ability, gives the Kings an advantage and luxury that teams crave but have a tough time finding.
“There are not many No. 1 powerful centres in this league. There is only maybe one a team, if that,” Williams said. “Kopy’s skill level and his work ethic and his defensive-zone responsibilities are something that set him apart from a lot of the other players.”
Kopitar excels in his own end, too. He was ninth in the NHL with 76 takeaways.
“I’ve always had the mindset of going out to perform to the best or to the potential that I have,” said Kopitar, the No. 11 pick in the 2005 NHL draft. “If people notice me or not, it doesn’t really matter except for me knowing that I do lay out there every night and do my best.”
The two-way game he plays is certainly not lost on stellar goalie Jonathan Quick, who is likely the biggest obstacle in Kopitar’s path to the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP should the Kings capture the Cup.
“It was a little disappointing for quite a while,” Quick said of Kopitar’s relative anonymity. “You see how well he’s played for the past few years and it seems like he doesn’t get as much praise as he definitely deserves. He is definitely one of the best players in the league, and I’m glad to see he’s finally getting some press and attention.
The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Kopitar was much less effusive in speaking about himself, which certainly fits into his obscurity. With higher-profile stars such as Richards and Brown on his team, it is easy for Kopitar to remain in the shadows and catch clubs off-guard—especially an Eastern team such as the Devils, who faced the Kings only twice this season, and not since October.
“I think everybody knows about his skill,” Los Angeles defenceman Rob Scuderi said. “One thing they don’t maybe see is his size. He is a big guy. He doesn’t get knocked off the puck easily, and he uses it to his advantage in the offensive and defensive zone.”
Now he is working to combine those talents to help the Kings win for the first time since they joined the NHL for the 1967-68 season. The only other time Los Angeles has reached the Stanley Cup finals was in 1993, a five-game loss to the Montreal Canadiens.
Game 2 is Saturday night.
“We want to add something to our resume here,” Williams said, “and Kopy is not going to stop until he’s got that.”