April 21, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Anze Kopitar continues hot start in Kings’ win over Blues

No matter how often he gets asked about Anze Kopitar, Kings coach Todd McLellan doubts his answer will ever fundamentally change.

“I can basically tell you tonight what I’m probably going to tell you tomorrow, and then the next game and the next game,” McLellan said of the Kings captain, who tallied a goal and two assists in a 6-3 win Sunday night against the St. Louis Blues.

“Kopi is so consistent in the things that he does.”

Six games into the season, Kopitar’s 10 points (one goal, nine assists) are tied with Toronto’s Mitchell Marner and Edmonton’s Connor McDavid for the NHL scoring lead. Averaging more than 23 minutes of ice time per night, he’s been the main catalyst behind the Kings’ 2-2-2 start.

“He commits to both ends of the rink,” McLellan said. “I think there’s some great offensive players that cheat to get their offense and, as a result, it hurts the team. That’s never the way Kopi’s played and I don’t think he’ll ever finish his career cheating.”

Case in point: Kopitar cemented the Kings’ victory Sunday by setting up their fifth goal from his own zone. After helping kill off a Lias Andersson penalty, the 33-year-old center won a puck battle in the corner and fired a long stretch to Andersson as he came out of the box, springing a breakaway goal that helped the team earn an impressive series split against the Blues.

“He sets the tone,” McLellan said, “and when you play the right way, you often get rewarded.”

So far, the Kings have been reaping the benefits of Kopitar’s strong start too. Here are five more takeaways from their trip to St. Louis:

Kopitar an ‘extension of staff’

Kopitar deflected the praise when asked about his early season spot atop the NHL’s points leaderboard.

“Of course it’s nice to see,” he said, “but let’s rack up some wins and then we’ll focus on the individual stuff.”

It was the type of quiet leadership McLellan referenced Saturday night, after Kopitar recorded two points in the Kings’ 4-2 loss to the Blues: “For me, he’s an extension of the [coaching] staff. He understands how we want to play. He attempts to play the right way all the time. … He provides great leadership for the group. There’s a lot of nights we can count on him.”

Kopitar has multiple points in four of the first six games and finally registered his first goal Sunday, deflecting the eventual game-winner into the net off an Adrian Kempe wrist shot in the second period. This year is only the third time in his career Kopitar has reached double-digit points in the opening half-dozen games of a season.

“I feel good on the ice,” Kopitar said. “I’m seeing the ice pretty well. I still think there’s room for improvement in certain areas. So keep on working on it and hopefully get better.”

Kempe making a leap

The Kings’ extended 10-month off-season gave each of their players extra time to hone in on specific areas of their game.

In Kempe’s case, the improvements were twofold. He worked on his shot, developing a quicker release that has paid off with three early-season goals. He also matured mentally, quickly proving to McLellan that he was ready to become a bigger factor in the Kings lineup in his fifth NHL season.

“He just carries himself a little bit different,” McLellan said of Kempe, 24. “Maybe going from a young man to an older man and accepting some leadership has been a good thing for him.”

As a result, Kempe was the first player McLellan turned to last week when he decided to shake up his top line, sticking the left winger next to Kopitar and Alex Iafallo. In the three games since, the trio has been on the ice for six of the Kings’ last 10 goals (excluding empty-netters) with Kempe either scoring or assisting on five of them.

“Last year I’m not sure he was ready to play there full time,” McLellan said Saturday of putting Kempe with the first line. “This year we were a little hesitant to move him there just because of that fact, but … I think he’s ready to accept that responsibility a little bit more than maybe he had in the past.”

Echoed Kopitar: “He’s got the hot hand. He’s been like that in the past, where he went into spurts where he was one of the best, if not the best, player on the ice. Now we’re trying to get him the puck as much as we can and hopefully he can stay consistent.”

Quick continues strong start

Before the Kings surged in front Sunday night, they allowed a succession of odd-man rushes against goalie Jonathan Quick over the first 15 minutes. Quick, however, only allowed one to get past him, at one point even denying the Blues on a four-on-one break to help keep the Kings in the game.

“Quickie was there for us again,” said McLellan, whose squad went on to score five unanswered goals after Quick’s early heroics. “We needed that.”

Three days removed from his 35th birthday, Quick’s .898 save percentage and 3.15 goals against average belies the quality of his first four games — all of which have seen the Kings earn at least one point.

“I’m seeing the same old Johnny,” Kopitar said. “I do think maybe the extended [off-season] gave him time to kind of get all those little teeny-tiny injuries out of the way and really get prepared for the season. He’s looked great so far.”

Maatta scratched twice

Olli Maatta’s introduction to the Kings hasn’t gone to plan, as the former back-to-back Stanley Cup champion became a back-to-back healthy scratch in both games against the Blues this weekend.

“He’s going to be a very good player for us moving forward,” McLellan said Saturday of Maatta, an eight-year NHL veteran the Kings acquired in an offseason trade. “He’s had a bit of a tough time adjusting to a new partner, new environment, new system. It’s never easy coming over as a new player, especially in this type of season or circumstances, so we’ve got to get him reset and up and running so that he’s playing to his capabilities.”

Playing primarily with Drew Doughty in the opening week, Maatta recorded a minus-one with no points in the season’s first four games and appeared to be partially at fault on several defensive zone breakdowns that led to opponents’ goals. In his absence, rookie Mikey Anderson joined Doughty on the top defense pairing while Kurtis MacDermid was reinserted on the third pair.

First road trip

Despite stringent social distancing protocols and a mostly empty Enterprise Center in St. Louis, the Kings said their first road trip of this pandemic-altered season wasn’t too much of an adjustment.

McLellan thought it helped that Los Angeles County is already one of the strictest places in the country when it comes to COVID-19 restrictions, making some of the NHL’s travel rules — which include guidelines for everything from seating arrangements on flights to limitations on activities outside team hotels — seem almost routine.

“We’re being as careful as we can,” McLellan said. “The players have all been informed. We had one big long meeting one day, we were probably on Zoom calls for an hour, hour and 10 minutes, going through all of this. And then they get reminders prior to road trips of what’s acceptable, what isn’t.”

The experience of playing as the away team wasn’t altered in the extreme either.

“Obviously the momentum of the fans and the energy in the building isn’t there,” McLellan said. “The [line] matches and the ability for last change, that certainly still works into the home team’s favor. But other than that, I don’t know if there’ll be a big swing one way or the other.”