Kings center Anze Kopitar unleashes a shot past Predators left wing Martin… (Mark Humphrey / Associated…)
Kings' playoff chronicles: Leading scorer Anze Kopitar has gone from playing Vancouver … all the way to Vancouver again.
This is progress?
It is if you haven't been in a playoff game in nearly two years, an eon for a hockey player. When the Kings take the ice for Game 1 in Vancouver on Wednesday, it will be two weeks shy of two years since Kopitar's last postseason action, a first-round loss to the Canucks.
Kopitar suffered a broken right ankle against Colorado in late March last season, requiring surgery, and it forced him to miss the playoffs against the Sharks. He would make his own way to San Jose for Game 2 but stayed home for the series opener.
"It's the best time of the year and I had to be on the couch, walking on crutches," he said recently. "I wanted to be with the guys. I wanted to see them. At the same time, talking to [then-coach] Terry [Murray] and [General Manager] Dean [Lombardi], they didn't think it would be the best thing for me to be around the whole time.
"That first game up in San Jose, all the pregame stuff and all the excitement that was in the building, I was actually a little upset because I couldn't play. And everything is building up to that point. You can't do everything except be the No. 1 fan.
"It definitely [stunk] at that point."
The No. 1 playoff fan will be returning to his rightful spot as No. 1 center for this playoff run. Kopitar led the Kings with 25 goals and 76 points and finished the season with points in five of the last six games, one goal and 10 assists.
He has been playing on a line with Dustin Brown and Brad Richardson but was centering Brown and Justin Williams at practice Monday.
"The last two weeks you could see Kopi's game just getting better, how much he's taking over games," Kings center Mike Richards said. "He's obviously done that over the last two weeks and we expect nothing less from him coming into the playoffs."
Will this be the playoffs in which Kopitar makes that transition from very good to great, turning from the guy into "The Guy"?
The team leaders were the Kings' best performers in the meaningful games down the stretch and the playoffs will require more of the same from Kopitar and linemate Brown.
"We both know that … if we were going to do some damage, Justin [Williams], Mike [Richards] and Jeff [Carter] — when he comes back — we've got to lead the way," Kopitar said. "We've got to pull the team behind us and that's just the way it is."
At his best, Kopitar is a force, tough to handle one on one. He has owned stretches of the season with command performances, excelling in all three zones.
Those are the highs. Like the Kings, there have been lows for Kopitar during a tumultuous season. In late February, about a week before the NHL's trade deadline, Kings Coach Darryl Sutter called out Kopitar and Brown, saying that they had become stale together and that Kopitar needed to be more determined when he had the puck in the offensive zone.
"We both knew we were not playing the best hockey we can," said Kopitar, who had three goals in a 14-game stretch when Sutter issued the challenge. "But at that time, you're stressing out about that. You're trying to improve. You're thinking. Your mind is spinning. Your thoughts are going 100 miles an hour. Sometimes, it's not that easy to break out that quick."
The long partnership between Kopitar and Brown played a part in helping the duo emerge from the slump. They are linemates, carpooling mates, friends and neighbors. Kopitar might not babysit Brown's young sons, but he says he does "babysit" his dog.
Kopitar also tried to provide reassurance when Brown was the subject of trade speculation, leading to a frantic few days in Rumorville.
"Next thing you know there's half a million people talking about it, or reading about it," Kopitar said. "You can't do anything about it. I was texting back and forth with Brownie. And you can see it. I guess he was a little insecure. At the end of the day, if [Wayne].Gretzky got traded, everybody else can, obviously."
Brown responded in the next game with a hat trick and an assist against Chicago on Feb. 25. As for Kopitar, he would go on an impressive run — starting in the next game, at Nashville on Feb. 27 — picking up points in nine of 10 games, scoring seven goals in the stretch.
"You try to learn from it," Kopitar said. "And you can't really put a finger on what was wrong. You're trying something new every day. But it's not working. At that time you have to slow down and start going from zero and going from there."
That was a teaching moment for the 24-year-old. So was the Sharks' playoff series last season, which the Kings lost in six games. Kopitar said he was able to look at the bigger picture, watching from afar. Those lessons, of course, are transportable now that he will be taking part at ice level, not watching from the comfort of his couch.
"You never know when you're going to end it," he said of the playoffs. "Everything goes really quick. A seven-game series can be stretched out, but if you're not on your game it can end in a hurry."