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Kings and Kopitar hit on winning combination

The team is leading the Pacific Division and he is leading the NHL in scoring, and neither of those feats would be possible without the other.

October 28, 2009|HELENE ELLIOTT

It's too early in the season to dream too big and these are the Kings, after all, masters of selling hope, if nothing else.

But it's impossible not to be impressed that they are leading the Pacific Division and that center Anze Kopitar is leading the NHL in scoring, and neither of those feats would be possible without the other.

Kopitar, in his fourth season and still awaiting his first playoff experience, has 10 goals and 21 points in 12 games. Drawn away from the fringes and into the action by linemate Ryan Smyth, who has made a living creating and potting rebounds in the trenches around the net, Kopitar has produced grand results.

The 22-year-old Slovenian has been held scoreless only once and has six goals and nine points in his last four games. The Kings have won all four and will sit a point ahead of San Jose when the teams meet tonight at HP Pavilion.

As an opponent, Smyth recognized and respected Kopitar's raw talent. As a teammate, Smyth is helping Kopitar add dimensions to his game and learn how to carry an entire team, as franchise centers traditionally do.

"The thing I always noticed about him was that the puck never died with him. He always seemed to make plays," said Smyth, who was acquired from Colorado last summer and placed on Kopitar's left from the start of training camp.

"I think he's had this in his game. He wants to improve his game. There's always room for improvement in every player and he understands that at a young age. He wants to give more and it's not for himself, it's all for the team."

Kopitar's early success ranks him ahead of Marian Gaborik, Alexander Ovechkin, Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley, Rick Nash and even Sidney Crosby -- all the superstars you would see on national TV if the NHL had a decent broadcast deal with a network that's not in a dispute with DirecTV.

No King has led the league in scoring since 1993-94, when Wayne Gretzky collected 130 points. Kopitar might not finish as the scoring leader. He might not top the charts a month from now.

But he has worked hard to get this far, and he has earned the right to enjoy this moment.

"It's special, and I'm really proud of it right now," he said Tuesday. "I know it's not just the job I'm doing. I know it takes 20 guys to make that happen too.

"But it's still 12 games. I mean, there's 70 more left."

Kopitar had long offered hints he might be special and justify the Kings having drafted him 11th overall in 2005. No one knew, though, when he would supplement his talent with effort, enthusiasm and a dedicated off-season training regimen.

"On paper, when I got the job I'm looking at a young player who has great potential," said Terry Murray, who's in his second season as the Kings' coach. "Offensively he's got great skills. He can make things happen."

But even Murray, who placed Justin Williams to the right of Smyth and Kopitar and struck gold again when Wayne Simmonds seamlessly replaced the injured Williams three games ago, didn't foresee Kopitar leading the scoring parade.

"I didn't know how the chemistry would develop with Ryan Smyth and Williams and Simmonds, and I think that in particular Ryan Smyth's had an impact there," Murray said. "He's a creative guy and he holds the puck and he brings people to the net. He makes plays happen around the net.

"Kopi's really responded. He's got a great feel about his game. He's shooting the puck. He's got that mentality going right now."

Kopitar led the Kings with 77 points in 2007-08 but dropped to 66 points last season, still a team-best total but not much to brag about. Murray insisted Kopitar was sacrificing offense to become a better defensive player, but that seemed more like an excuse than an honest assessment of Kopitar's progress. Or lack thereof.

"Looking at the stats I was still minus-17, if you're going there. I'm well aware of that," Kopitar said with a smile. "It is a work in progress. In my defense I can say I've been on the ice for some empty-net goals, so that's a minus."

To his credit, he halted in mid-sentence and declared he wouldn't rely on excuses anymore.

"I've definitely learned Terry's system of playing," he said. "I think for me, the less running around I do in the defensive zone, the more I stay in position and it's better. You cover more ice and you're fresher on the offense.

"The thing is you've got to go and just basically rub the guy out and not give him a chance to beat you off the boards or in front of the net. That's all it takes. And then the pucks are going to come to you and you make plays and you're ready to go."

How far Kopitar and the Kings will go is impossible to predict.

"I'll be really happy if that name is on there by the end of the season," he said of the scoring leaders' list. "I know it's going to be hard. As long as we keep going like that and working hard, I'm pretty sure things are going to come."

Good things, maybe, for a team that has had few enough of those the last decade or four.


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