Kings center Kopitar proves to be elite player
LOS ANGELES -- For the victors in the Stanley Cup Final, that first moment when they receive the big silver trophy and thrust it as high into the air as they can, is pure, unfiltered bliss.
What follows is only slightly more organized than chaos. Family, friends and media turn the playing surface into a crowded bus station, if that floor was covered by ice.
Everyone is searching for someone or something, trying to get to a place in the opposite direction of the person coming toward them. The people with media credentials are following the Los Angeles Kings, waiting for them to exhale and try to formulate coherent thoughts when delirium and exhaustion are in play.
The players are congratulated by people they love and people they don't know, and eventually their focus zeroes in on that big silver thing again.
Every player gets a chance in the aftermath of the original celebration to spend a couple more minutes with the Cup on the ice, and this is the chance for photos with family and particular sets of teammates.
Kings center Anze Kopitar spent close to 20 minutes after the 3-2, double-overtime Game 5 win against the New York Rangers on Friday stalking the Cup. Every time one player was done taking photos, he'd tell Kopitar someone else had called dibs next.
Kopitar was answering questions the best he could in multiple languages, but each time his eyes rarely left where the Cup was located or moving to next. He ended nearly a half-dozen interviews with a polite apology, because it was time to try again to fetch the Cup.
When Kopitar finally had his turn, it was time to convene the first family of Slovenian hockey. Years from now, here's guessing he's going to cherish that photo the most.
"It is a great feeling," Kopitar said. "It is ..."
His voice trailed off like he was trying to imitate the "No words" Stanley Cup Playoffs advertisement, only it was genuine.
This has been an incomparable season for Kopitar. He won the Stanley Cup and led the NHL playoffs in scoring for the second time in three seasons, but this was also a coronation as one of the world's best players.
No one symbolized the incredibly difficult path to a championship for the Kings more than Kopitar, who his coach consistently matched against some of the best centers in the sport. In each of the three rounds to survive the Western Conference, Kopitar outplayed the world-class player expected to contain him.
First it was Joe Thornton and (mostly) Logan Couture of the San Jose Sharks. Next it was Ryan Getzlaf of the Anaheim Ducks. Then it was Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks.
After Kopitar and the Kings were done eliminating Toews in the Blackhawks, Wayne Gretzky went on national television in Canada and said Kopitar is the third-best hockey player in the world, behind Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby and Toews. Kopitar finished the postseason with 26 points, a total behind only by Gretzky in Kings playoff history.
Kopitar's play in this postseason, combined with an analytics-based look at his body of work, could help someone form a convincing argument that the 26-year-old is, in fact, not behind Toews.
"I say it all the time, but I think he's one of the best centers in the world and maybe he doesn't get as much credit," Kings coach Darryl Sutter said. "This season he's nominated for the Selke [Trophy], but he doesn't get as much exposure playing on the West Coast. He's one heck of a hockey player."
Kopitar participated in the 2014 Sochi Olympics for his native Slovenia with his father, Matjaz, as his coach. That alone would make for memories that last a lifetime, but the Kopitars helped Slovenia to the two greatest victories in the country's hockey history, defeating established Slovakia in the preliminary round then advancing to the quarterfinals by defeating Austria.
On a team with no other NHL players, Kopitar was magnificent. He remained at that level in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Kopitar (6-foot-2, 224 pounds) has become the complete package, the prototypical franchise center. He has Evgeni Malkin's size, but also Toews' defensive ability.
Kopitar glides past defenders with long strides or bullies past them with underrated strength. At one point Friday during Game 5, Kopitar went into the corner with Rangers forward Rick Nash and muscled him off the puck like he was someone who weighed 40 pounds less.
There was a shift in overtime when Kopitar's line was hemmed in its own zone, and teammates were struggling to get into the correct defensive position because of fatigue. Kopitar collected the puck and did the rest himself, skating past multiple Rangers for one of the most important zone exits of the season.
"He's always had the ability, both goal-scoring and obviously playmaking ability," Kings captain Dustin Brown said. "I think there's a reason he doesn't score 90 to 100 points like he's probably capable of doing, and part of it is the way we play. If there's one thing he doesn't do, it's cheat on the offensive side of the puck, and that's why he's up for the Selke. I think you put him on another team or in a different system, he probably has a lot more points, but again that's what makes us successful, is we have our best players buy into our system. As a result, he might not score as many, but we're sitting here in June playing.
"You try and describe guys [as] 'shutdown D' or 'goal-scorer' or 'grinder.' I've said this before about [Kopitar], he's just a hockey player. If the best play's a pass, it's a pass, if the best play's a shot, it's a shot. He's just a complete hockey player. He doesn't get enough credit in my opinion, partly probably because of the market we're in, his background. If he was a Canadian and played in New York, [there would] probably be more people talking about him."
Kopitar is an advanced-statistics marvel. He faces the toughest competition and Sutter dares opposing coaches to avoid using their stars against Kopitar. He and Jarret Stoll field all of the tough faceoff assignments.
The Kings dominate possession of the puck when Kopitar is on the ice. The game slows down for everyone when he is dictating the play.
He is the talisman, the fulcrum of what makes the Kings so difficult to play against.
The appreciation for Kopitar in the United States and Canada is no longer substandard. It's hard to remain underrated when an icon of Gretzky's stature says what he did on "Hockey Night in Canada."
"He's a big, strong guy. He has skill. He's really got it all," Kings center Mike Richards said. "Then you put the emphasis that he does on playing on the defensive side of the puck, that really makes a special player.
"What he can do on the ice, take over games ... We see it every day, so we kind of get spoiled. But I think a couple years ago when we won the Cup, it was kind of his coming-out party, and everybody now realizes how good he is."
Author: Corey Masisak | NHL.com Staff Writer