Thursday, May 31, 2012

Kopitar Scores a Defining-Moment Goal in the Cup Finals

By Larry Wigge

It was one of those defining moments in sports you often here about, but rarely ever see. It was like a walk-off home run with everyone watching the batter's every move as he rounded the bases -- it had that finality to it.

The clock was ticking ... 8:10, 8:11, 8:13 and 8:13 into sudden death with the scored tied at one goal apiece between the Los Angeles Kings and the New Jersey Devils.

Anze Kopitar was in the right place at the most opportune time to make some magic work. No one else would have the guile and speed to break free behind the defense. No one else would have retrieve a perfect backhanded pass from Justin Williams while in stride and he let his God-given ability to break in along on Marty Brodeur. And no one else would have neatly faked the all-world goaltender down an out with a move made in heaven before he deposited the puck into the net.

It was a surreal trip down memory lane for Kopitar -- in his first real trip on the big stage.

Anze Kopitar made the whole scenario work for him.

"I wanted to make sure I went through the middle. I don't know if he heard me or not," Kopitar said of Williams. "I yelled for the puck. He chipped it obviously perfect, right on my tape.

"You know, it happened pretty quick. I was able to finish it off ..."

But there was some leftover magic to be completed for Kopitar ... the goal. 

Many things were going through his head, but the only thing the Kings star could think of as he sped down the ice in overtime Wednesday night, incredibly, was a shootout game against the Devils earlier in his career in which he tried a backhand move against Brodeur.

"I went forehand against him," said Kopitar, still smiling at the podium twenty minutes after the play had been complete. "I guess that goes back a few years ago, when, you know, we were in a shootout in L.A. and I went backhanded on him.

"Maybe, he thought I was going to do it again. Tonight, I just wanted to mix it up a
a little bit."

Williams didn't say whether he heard Kopitar shouting amidst the din of the crowd.

"I knew Kopi was in the area over there," Williams said. "That's when you just throw an area pass over there, hopefully he skates into it and hopefully it's timed right. Fortunately it was."

Mike Richards saw the move and marveled at it long into the night, "It was a move two or three people in the World could make."

It reminded me of a young Michael Jordan scoring on the twisting jumper as the clock was running out for the Bulls in the NBA Finals. Santonio Holmes making a TD grab in the back of the end zone from Ben Roethlisberger in the Super Bowl for the Steelers. Joe Carter with the walk-off home run against Mitch Williams to decide the World Series for Toronto. Or maybe Jarome Iginla of Calgary in Game 1 of the 2004 Stanley Cup finals against Tampa Bay's Nikolai Khabibulin on a breakaway.

One of those game-defining plays in sports might come to mind. It only happens once in a lifetime.

It served as a reminder just who Anze Kopitar was and how he came into the NHL.

As a youngster, Kopitar would wake up in the morning, walk out on the balcony of his family's home in Jesenice, a town of about 21,000 people on the Adriatic Sea. Kopitar says its not unlike a young boy growing up in North America with his nose pressed against the window, looking in the distance. Only Anze wanted to see more than just the countryside in his native Slovenia, which gained its independence and split from Yugoslavia in 1991. He wondered what what out there in the distance beyond the tunnel that separated the former Yugoslavia and Austria ... for him.

"I was five minutes from Austria and 25 minutes from Italy, but ..."

Kopitar paused to reflect on the whole big world that his family helped him to reach, from the hockey rink Matjaz, his dad, built for him to learn to skate and refine his skills and where he taught him a lot of the 1-on-1 drills he used as a hockey coach in Austria, to the discipline he learned working at his mom, Mateja's, restaurant to the insistence of his grandmother, a schoolteacher, that Anze take English as a second language.

Kopitar wasn't dreaming about the National Hockey League, when he was growing up in the tiny border town of Jesenice. His parents wouldn't let him stay up at night to watch any NHL games that might be shown on Slovenian TV. That didn't stop Anze from waking up in the morning and getting on-line to study the scores and stories of a game that seemed so far off.

Kopitar grew up reading about how Sergei Fedorov defected from his Russian team in Seattle before the Goodwill Games in 1990. He watched and followed Fedorov's career with the Detroit Red Wings. He dreamed that he might someday also make his way to the NHL.

"It was really helpful to have a dad who knew so much about hockey," Anze said. "He gave me great advice. I remember we spent a lot of time watching old tapes. We'd watch different NHL players, Fedorov was one of my favorites. I'd watch his stride, his skills, his disciplined among others. Then my dad and I would try to work on certain parts of my game and use the tapes as a learning tool."

A few minutes with Kopitar and you come away thinking he's 19 going on about 30. He's bright, outgoing, smart and always looking to challenge himself to do more. The problem some European players have with adjusting to the culture, the language, the bigness of everything over here doesn't seem to affect Anze.

Nothing seems to bother him.

Not even Marty Brodeur on the biggest stage of his life with the game on the line for the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Finals.

"It's amazing how lucky I've been," Kopitar said.

Lucky? Not this young man, who has the Midas Touch.

Now, when he wakes up in the morning and looks out the window, he must enjoy knowing how old dreams have been reached ... and finding new dreams that are oh-so-close to being conquered as well.

Anze Kopitar clearly is a difference-maker.

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