Kings center Anze Kopitar writes in pain after breaking his right ankle… (Danny Moloshok / Reuters )
After years of missteps and misfortune, after carefully gathering the right components to build a team that could cause havoc in the playoffs, the Kings now face another test of their resilience and patience.
Center Anze Kopitar, their top scorer and one of the NHL's most productive forwards, broke an ankle Saturday during their 4-1 victory over the Colorado Avalanche and will be out a minimum of six weeks. He was battling defenseman Ryan O'Byrne for the puck along the boards, the type of play that happens dozens of times every game, when he fell backward and badly twisted his right leg.
Unable to stand, he was helped off the ice at 15 minutes 39 seconds of the second period. A club spokesman said Kopitar will undergo an MRI exam Monday to determine the extent of the damage.
"He's our best player. We've got to find a way either way," team captain Dustin Brown said. "Injuries happen during the year. You don't want to have your best player go down, but if that's the case we've got to shoulder the responsibility collectively and find a way because no other team is going to feel sorry for us."
Nor can they feel sorry for themselves despite losing Kopitar a few days after losing their second-leading scorer, right wing Justin Williams, for three to four weeks because of a dislocated shoulder.
In winning their third straight game the Kings strengthened their hold on fifth place in the tight Western Conference with seven games left. Ryan Smyth ended a 14-game drought by scoring early in the third period on a setup from Trevor Lewis, and Smyth returned the favor on Lewis' goal at 10:05 of the final period, a combination the Kings might soon have to rely on.
General Manager Dean Lombardi said he can't recall prized prospect Brayden Schenn now — Schenn's junior team must finish its season before he can return to the NHL — and Lombardi's second choice, center Andrei Loktionov, underwent season-ending shoulder surgery this month. Coach Terry Murray said after the game he will discuss other options with Lombardi.
Defense has been the foundation of the Kings' success since Murray arrived and will continue to be their touchstone. Maybe even more so minus Kopitar's 25 goals and 73 points and Williams' 22 goals and 57 points.
But Kopitar was an important part of the defensive success, too, with a team-leading +25 defensive rating, and he was a constant presence. On Saturday, he extended his club-record streak of consecutive games played to 330.
"He plays it all," Smyth said. "It's tough to replace a guy like that but collectively we can all step up if that's the case."
Beating Colorado, which is 3-20-2 the last two months, was no measure of the effort the Kings will need to keep their season from collapsing.
"I've been through these kinds of things before, with top guys being out with injuries and it's an opportunity," Murray said. "Other guys step up. The character of the team needs to step up.
"Everybody has to do the right things. You've got to trust your structure and your system and give it the best opportunity you can now as a group to finish things off and play the right way."
The Kings were leading, 2-0, when Kopitar was injured. Willie Mitchell was credited with the first goal, a play that began when a shot by Kopitar took a strange carom and Mitchell rifled a rolling puck past Peter Budaj at 10:30 of the first period. Michal Handzus made it 2-0 at 17:34, taking a backhand pass from Brown and converting during a power play.
The Avalanche scored at 18:21 of the second period, after Drew Doughty fell behind his net and Milan Hejduk bested Jonathan Quick from close range.
With scrambled lines and subdued spirits among the announced sellout crowd, the Kings extended their lead in the third period, but it won't be that easy the rest of the way. Only one of their final seven games will be against a non-playoff contender, and that's Tuesday at Edmonton.
"We have to move on. We have games to play," Murray said. "And we have games to win."
A task that just became a lot more difficult.