Can the Kings Cope-itar?
With one twist of an ankle the mood at STAPLES Center went from hopeful to grim. At 15:39 of the second period with Colorado Avalanche defenseman Ryan O’Byrne and Kings’ All-Star center Anze Kopitar fighting for the puck on the boards, Kopitar landed awkwardly on his right leg falling into a heap on the ice.
Kopitar, the team’s leading scorer 73 points (25 goals, 48 assists), had to be helped off the ice by the medical staff and teammates Dustin Penner and Michal Handzus. He was diagnosed with a broken ankle and is estimated to be out for a minimum of six weeks.
“He’s your top player, your top forward, so there’s quite a hole that’s going to be there,” head coach Terry Murray said. As grim as the news was he also wanted to put up a reassuring front.
“You know what. I’ve been through these kinds of things before with top guys being out with injuries. It’s an opportunity - other guys step up, the character of the team needs to step up, everybody has to do the right things.”
This severely impacts the Kings’ playoff hopes as they are in the middle of a muddled Western Conference pack where five points could determine whether a team wins the division or sits outside the playoffs. Also not helping this cause was right-winger Justin Williams suffering an arm injury during the Kings’ game against the Calgary Flames on Mon., March 21.
“We have to find a way,” captain Dustin Brown said. “You don’t want to have your best player go down, but if that’s the case we need to fill the responsibility collectively and find a way because no other team is going to feel sorry for us.”
To add insult to injury, the Kings really don’t have another center to bring up from the minors. Andrei Loktionov is out for the rest of the season with a shoulder injury and Brayden Schenn is unavailable to the team until the Saskatoon Blades of the Western Hockey League are eliminated from the playoffs.
“That will be something we will discuss,” Murray said.
All of this overshadowed the Kings’ easy 4-1 victory over the reeling Avalanche who came into the game with a 3-18-2 record since Jan. 26. In Kopitar’s absence in the third period, the entire team stepped up particularly young fourth-line center Trevor Lewis who came up from the fourth line to the second line with left-winger Ryan Smyth and right-winger Dustin Brown.
Smyth skating down the left wing dished a pass to Lewis in the low slot who put it past Avs’ goalie Peter Budaj to give the Kings the 4-1 lead.
“He’s going to get the opportunity with better players to be put in those offensive situations,” Murray said. “After seeing him finish on that goal tonight, maybe there’s more there. We hope there is.”
Smyth also got into the action early in the third period breaking his scoreless drought dating back to Feb. 24 stuffing the puck from behind the net at 1:36 for the 3-1 lead.
“It’s a relief,” Smyth said. “It’s nice to contribute and feel a part for sure.”
Also not to go unnoticed defenseman Willie Mitchell, becoming a goal-scoring juggernaut for the Kings, scored his second goal in as many games with a shot from the left point aided by a screen up front by Dustin Penner at 10:30 in the first period. His five goals this season sets a career high for him in the NHL. The last time he scored as many as five goals in a season was back in 1999-2000 when he scored five for the Albany River Rats of the American Hockey League.