The Kings' Justin Williams celebrates his shootout goal to win a game… (Todd Korol / Reuters )
Kings fans have become conditioned to hope for the best but expect the worst.
Their fears date back decades. From Charlie Simmer shattering his leg in March 1981 to end a spectacular season and Marty McSorley's illegally curved stick in Game 2 of the 1993 Stanley Cup finals, fans' hopes have been dashed in too many cruel ways.
So when center Anze Kopitar, the team's leading scorer, fell in a heap after twisting his right ankle on an innocuous play along the boards Saturday, fans held their collective breath.
So did Coach Terry Murray.
"You're just waiting for him to get up and when you see him on his hands and knees you're saying, 'Uh-oh,' " Murray said. "You're thinking knee, you're thinking ankle, you're just hoping it may be a stinger and he's going to get back up and be OK on the next shift but … ."
Kopitar wasn't OK. An MRI test performed Monday found a high ankle sprain and torn ligaments that will require surgery, not the broken ankle that was initially announced. He is scheduled for surgery Wednesday and will be out indefinitely, likely ending his season. The Kings said in a statement he will begin rehabilitation immediately and is expected to fully recover.
The misfortune occurred two games after the Kings' second-leading scorer, right wing Justin Williams, was knocked out of the lineup for at least three weeks because of a dislocated right shoulder.
After the shock wore off for the Kings, who had won three straight games and stood fifth in the West, reality set in.
"Losing two of your best offensive players on a team that has been struggling to score of late is not going to help us at all," defenseman Jack Johnson said.
"But there's nothing we can do about it. It's out of our control. The season presses on so we have to find a way to score and win without him."
That will be difficult. Their power play's success rate with Kopitar was 17.1%, below the league average. They didn't have much team speed up front and have less now.
Their best strategy is to hope for a lot of 1-0 and 2-1 games. Their defense has been their strength since Murray took over, and their team goals-against average of 2.35 ranked seventh in the NHL through Sunday's games. But Kopitar was an integral part of that defense, gaining consideration for the Selke Trophy as the NHL's top defensive forward.
It's almost impossible to find an NHL team that hasn't lost a key player to injury this season. The Pittsburgh Penguins lost Sidney Crosby to a concussion in early January and Evgeni Malkin to knee surgery in early February but regrouped impressively. The Philadelphia Flyers have had to do without Chris Pronger several times, the Detroit Red Wings are without Chris Osgood and Pavel Datsyuk, and there probably isn't a defenseman on the Vancouver Canucks who hasn't been hurt.
The Kings should still make the playoffs but their chances of advancing have that old wait-'til-next-season feeling.
"You don't replace a guy like that, but maybe you do it with four or five guys," center Jarret Stoll said. "Sometimes that can be a rallying point as a group and realize you've got to buckle down even more because our best player is out."
The Kings have seven games left starting Tuesday at Edmonton against the Oilers, the only non-playoff contender they'll face.
"It's just going to be a good test for this young hockey club and we'll be better when we come through it. There's no question about it," Murray said. "Guys are going to be in a higher situation, a more important situation, and they'll grow immensely through this opportunity."
Their character has measured up. Now their depth must do the same.
Crosby continues to practice with no concussion symptoms. "Sidney is progressing very well in the past week or so," said his agent, Pat Brisson. "In the meantime, we don't have any timetable for a return based on the medical staff and I speak with them regularly."
Vancouver center Manny Malhotra, struck in the left eye by an errant puck, is scheduled to undergo surgery Tuesday. NBA star Steve Nash, whose sister, Joann, is married to Malhotra, tweeted Monday, "I need my brother in law, Manny Malhotra of the Vancouver Canucks, to have a successful eye surgery tomorrow saving his eye and vision."