Friday, March 18, 2016

Anze Kopitar looking for more titles in L.A.

By Larry Wigge

His fist-pump on the goal that tied the game was maybe even more joyous than when Anze Kopitar won the game in overtime.

The Los Angeles Kings playmaker extraordinaire got a stick on each of the aforementioned goals against the New York Rangers to show those that simply consider him a passing fancy may have misjudged him.

Kopitar has two Stanley Cup rings in 2012 and in 2014 to show that he can do it all, but I just can't get that fist-pump out of my head to tie the Rangers 3-3 en route to a 4-3 victory March 17.

"To come back like we did in the third," explained Kopitar, "it shows the character, again, that we have in this room."

The two goals gave Kopitar 24 goals and 40 assists in 69 games this season. The 40 assists represented the eighth time he had exceeded 40 assists in a season. He's been one of the hottest players in the NHL since November 20, Anze has put up 19 goals and 38 assists -- second in the NHL in scoring.

Kopitar's four overtime goals this season are the most in a single season in franchise history. Los Angeles' 11-3 in record decided in 3-on-3 overtime. And it was the second straight game-winning goals to go along with the win against Dallas two nights earlier.

The victory gave the Kings recent wins over the Rangers, Stars, Chicago and Washington -- four of the top teams in the NHL this season.

Most of that success can be traced back to Kopitar.

"He's been a key cog of our team for 10 years," Kings captain Dustin Brown said. "You take him off the club and we're a dramatically different team."

Says defensemen Drew Doughty, "He's been great. He's been good up front ... and has been all year. Not only is he great offensively and puts up a lot of points, he's out there in the 'D' zone on the 5-on-3 against, he's blocking shots and using the body. Without him, we wouldn't be where we are right now."

Speaking from a newcomer, Vincent Lecavalier, obtained from Philadelphia, speaks in glowing terms about Kopitar.

"I knew he was always a good player, but you really get to know somebody when you play with him ... and he's even better when you see him," Lecavalier said. "I mean, how good he is defensively and offensively, he's even better than what I thought.

"He's overall, like, what I call a perfect hockey player. He's that good. He's got great hands and great leadership off the ice as well. That's why he's had two Stanley Cups and has been a leader with this team."

Perfect player?

Darryl Sutter was GM of the Calgary Flames when Kopitar was selected with the 11th pick overall in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. He wished he had a chance Kopitar back then. But in the ensuing years, Sutter, now the coach of the Kings, got to know the big center as a fierce competitor and a No. 1 center most teams would love to have.

"He is a big No. 1 center with skill and talent. Most other teams would drool over having him," Sutter explained. "He plays the minutes big minutes on offense and chips in on defense.

"He's a presence ... all the time."

The 28-year-old center inked a new eight-year contract with the Kings worth $80 million, includes a $9 million bonus to be paid July 1 and another $9 million bonus on July 1, 2017.

"He's worth every penny of it," Sutter said. "That's what I knew about him. He plays lots of minutes, plays lots of situations, takes faceoffs, doesn't bother what style is going on, he can handle it.

"You win championships with players like that. Guys get rewarded for winning Stanley Cups -- and when they're with one franchise for that period of time, when you've won Cups, then everybody is looking forward to the next part with them."

The fist-pump I referred to in my opening can now be compared to how he felt looking out his window.

As a youngster, Anze 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, in Slovenia. 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.

Anze Kopitar wasn't dreaming about the NHL, when he was growing up in the tiny border town. 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, his favorite player, 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.

Except for missing his mom's cooking. The Kopitar's had an eating establishment in Slovenia.

"My mom made sure I worked hard, but also had some fun," Anze laughed, who would take orders sometimes, but ...

"Some of the waitresses weren’t strong enough to handle more than a couple of plates," Kopitar said. "Three or four plates filled with pasta or with a huge steak got too heavy for them. But I got to be good enough that I could carry about four plates at a time."

And the balance from those plates ...

"Yeah, it didn’t hurt my balance on skates, either," Anze joked.

And in school, Kopitar not only worked on his native Slovenian language, but he added English and German to his repertoire.

"Grandma was right," Kopitar said. "There are so many things knowing different languages can open up to you in life."

Marc Crawford, who coached in Colorado, Vancouver and Dallas, was Anze Kopitar's first coach in the NHL. He came up with the ultimate compliment for his rookie center.

"He's our most dangerous player on most nights," said Crawford. "He's really reliable for such a young age and what a competitor. He really likes to challenge opponents one-on-one ... and he wins most of those battles."

Then, Crawford went to a baseball comparison.

"In baseball, the experts like to talk about the elite players in the game being 5-tool players (refering to those who can hit, run, hit for power, play defense and can throw)," Crawford said. "Well, Anze is already a 5-tool player in our game."

GM Dean Lombardi on locking up Kopitar on a new eight-year contract.

"Whenever you're dealing with the value of these players, you're saying, 'Are you getting value?' " Lombardi said. "That's one part of the equation. The second part is how are you going to replace them?"

Well ...

With Kopitar, you don't replace the man who took the faceoff and went to the new for the tip-in against the Rangers in overtime for a 4-3 victory.

"How do you replace a No. 1 center?" Lombardi said, shaking his head.

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