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Well-rounded Kopitar is season's success story

Friday, 11.13.2009 / 5:00 PM / Columns

By Larry Wigge - NHL.com Columnist

Los Angeles Kings coach Terry Murray recent spoke about Anze Kopitar like a proud father.

"He's always been mature beyond his years," Murray said. "Now he's showing even more -- how accountable he is at both ends of the rink."

That natural maturation process that takes an offensive talent and makes him good offensively and defensively, which then puts him into position to score more, has taken place this season for Kopitar and the Kings.

"He's got it all now," said Murray, who put Kopitar on a line with veteran Ryan Smyth and Justin Williams this season -- and it's no coincidence Kopitar led the NHL in scoring with 14 goals and 30 points in 19 games going into this weekend, and the Kings are one of the League's best stories in this young season. In the process, one of the game's best feel-good stories has just gotten better.

In case you just dropped in, Kopitar reminded us that as a youngster, he 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 the country of Slovenia, which split from Yugoslavia in 1991, and see some pretty sights. But he wanted to see more than just the countryside. He wondered what was out there for him in the distance beyond the tunnel that separated the former Yugoslavia and Austria.

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

Kopitar paused to reflect on the big world his family helped him to reach, from the hockey rink his father, Matjaz, built for him to learn to skate and refine his skills and where he taught him a lot of the one-on-one drills he used as a hockey coach in Austria. Still, Anze wasn't dreaming about the NHL, when he was growing up. His parents wouldn't let him stay up at night to watch any NHL games that might be shown on Slovenian TV. But that didn't stop him from waking up in the morning and getting online to study the scores and stories of a game that seemed so far off.

Like most North American players, work ethic and family values were keen in Kopitar's development as a player and man. Like working at his mother, Mateja's, restaurant to the insistence of his grandmother, a schoolteacher, that Anze take English as a second language.

Mom's restaurant still specializes in pasta and steak. There Anze would take orders, and, yes, take plates of pasta to the customers.

"Mom made sure I worked hard, but also had some fun," Anze said with a laugh, adding, "Some of the waitresses weren't strong enough to handle more than a couple of plates. 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."

In school, Kopitar added English and German to his native Slovenian.

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

At 6-foot-3 and 222 pounds, Kopitar is the big, skilled center with leadership ability that every team wants. But the shred of mystery over coming from Slovenia enabled him to slip out of the top five or six in the 2005 Entry Draft to the Los Angeles Kings, who chose with the 11th pick.

There's clearly nothing lost in the translation to Anze Kopitar's rise to stardom now, is there?

The best measuring stick -- San Jose Sharks coach Todd McLellan might have preferred to see this point of the schedule in the final month of the season. But a contest at Detroit on Nov. 5 followed by a home game against Pittsburgh two days later came at a time when the Sharks needed a reality check.

Playing against the two Stanley Cup finalists in consecutive games is a measuring stick for a team that is looking to achieve those lofty heights.

The Sharks lost 2-1 in a shootout to the Red Wings and then smashed the defending champion Penguins, 5-0, and entered Thursday's game against Dallas with a 13-4-2 record, including a 9-1-1 record since Oct. 17.

"One thing those teams have is the will," McLellan said of the Wings and Pens. "They will themselves through a lot of situations. They don't just rely on their skill, they don't talk about it, but their will gets them to the next level."

Elvis has not left the building -- Even though he took a lot of heat for having just 4 goals in 12 October games for the Calgary Flames, Jarome Arthur Leigh Adekunle Tig Junior Elvis Iginla wasn't just waiting for his second wind. Or November.

"I always feel like I can do more," Iginla said after he scored 4 goals in his first three games of November. "I'm making a conscious effort to shoot a bit more. It's all a part of reacting to situations, less thinking."

Said Flames coach Brent Sutter, "When Jarome and I sat down to talk, most of it was simple and to the point about how he needs to be our hardest-working player every night."

When Iginla scored the game's only goal in Calgary's 1-0 defeat of Montreal on Nov. 10, it was his third game-winner in the last four games.

It isn't Lightning, it's power -- Power forward Ryan Malone had 26 goals last season. His 10-goal start in Tampa Bay's first 15 games threatens to obliterate his career-high of 27 goals set two seasons ago when he was in Pittsburgh.

He's no gangster, even though his teammates call him Bugsy, but he certainly strong-arms opponents in front of the other team's goal crease.

"You look at the goals he gets, they're usually around the net," Lightning coach Rick Tocchet said. "That's the thing you try to preach to guys, to get to those areas, and Bugsy will do that. He gets to those areas and that's why he gets winning goals."

Malone became the eighth player in NHL history and first since Brian Propp in 1982-83 to have four of his team's first five game-winners.

A quiet assassin -- Marian Gaborik didn't get his 12th goal until his last game last season, as injuries limited the five-time 30-goal scorer to just 17 games. This season, he netted No. 12 in his 15th game with the New York Rangers.

"His release is so fast you don't even know the puck is off his stick," said teammate Michael Del Zotto.

Ray of hope -- Ray Emery still drives his white Hummer to the rink, but unlike his time in Ottawa, where he says he was pulled over more than 30 times in two years for one traffic infraction or another, the Philadelphia goaltender so far has proven to be a changed man.

Even more important for the Flyers, he's changed behind the mask, where he's gone from 12-13-4 with a dismal .890 save percentage with the Senators in 2007-08 to a 9-3-1 start in Philadelphia going into Thursday's game against his former team.

"He's been a good teammate. He works extremely hard for us," Flyers coach John Stevens said of Emery. "He looks like the elite goalie we all thought he could be."

Oh captain my captain -- No one could argue the value of Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. It wasn't a coincidence that the Hawks' power play keyed a 4-1 win against Los Angeles on Nov. 9 in his first game back after he missed six games with a concussion. Two nights later, Chicago won again 3-2 in a shootout over Colorado.

Since Toews joined the club, Chicago is 88-50-20 with him in the lineup, 9-13-2 without him.

Said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, "You don't replace players who give you the kind of heart and soul and skill that Jonathan Toews does."

From one office to another -- When defenseman Kevin Bieksa went into coach Alain Vigneault's office recently, he wasn't sure what to expect.

With injuries to the Sedin twins, among others, the Canucks coach asked Bieksa for help. He asked him if he'd have a problem with moving up to the wing for a while.

"Coach showed me the lineup and asked if I'd give it a go," Bieksa said after Vancouver's 4-1 victory against the New York Rangers on Nov. 3, in which Bieksa contributed four shots and three hits. "I said, 'Yeah, I'll give it a go if that's where you need me.' I kept it pretty simple and had a couple of scoring chances."

Bieksa particularly was effective in traffic around the net.

Bieksa, who played forward until he was 15, then said, "Everyone knows it's easier to play forward."

The experienced defenseman and inexperienced winger moved back to defense in a game at St. Louis on Nov. 10, but he remains a valuable commodity at either position for Vigneault.

"You're still on the No. 1 line," defense partner Willie Mitchell said with a laugh. "No. 1 line on the back line."

Shootout magic at both ends -- Don't let the Atlanta Thrashers get you into a shootout -- not with Johan Hedberg in goal and Slava Kozlov doing the shooting.

Rich Peverley and Kozlov scored on both of the Thrashers' shootout attempts and Hedberg stopped both shots by the Blues to earn Atlanta a 3-2 win against St. Louis on Nov. 7.

Kozlov is an all-time League best 24-of-41 in the shootout, and his 11 game-deciding goals is tied for the top spot. Hedberg raised his career mark to 13-3 in shootouts, including a current streak of five straight wins dating to March 2008. Hedberg's .825 save percentage in shootouts is the highest by any goaltender who has played in at least 10 tiebreakers over the five seasons since the shootout was instituted by the NHL.

"They are both magic," Thrashers coach John Anderson said. "You should see them before practices and after practices. Neither one gives any ground. I think that competition helps both Moose (Hedberg) and Kozy."

Veterans Day hero -- For New Jersey Devils right wing David Clarkson, a Veterans Day game-winning goal in a 3-1 defeat of Anaheim is just his tribute to those in his family that have made life so comfortable for him.

"My grandfather fought in World War II and my uncle James fought in Vietnam," said Clarkson. "Their contributions to our freedom is something I think about every day."

Clarkson always has been a battler and fighter for the Devils. The goal against Anaheim was his fifth and put him on pace to eclipse the season-high of 17 goals he scored last season.

Things that make you go hmm ... -- How fast is fast? Colorado rookie Ryan O'Reilly recorded his first two-goal NHL game in the Avalanche's shootout win against the Blackhawks on Nov. 6. The 18-year-old O'Reilly is the youngest player in franchise history to score 2 goals in one game, breaking the record set by Joe Sakic (age 19 years, 94 days) in his third game in the NHL, on Oct. 9, 1988, when he scored twice for the Nordiques against the Minnesota North Stars. ... Rich Peverley spent four seasons at St. Lawrence University and parts of his first two pro seasons in the ECHL before signing with the Nashville Predators, who lost him to the Atlanta Thrashers on waivers last January. Talk about making the most of an opportunity. Peverley scored 35 points in 39 games for the Thrashers last season and has 17 in his first 14 games this season to lead the team in scoring. Peverley is keeping the team competitive during the absence of Ilya Kovalchuk. ... If you don't think Sergei Gonchar makes the Pittsburgh Penguins' power play go, consider that in the first seven games without Gonchar (broken wrist), Pittsburgh was just 3-for-32 with the extra man. ... Teemu Selanne's two-goal game in Anaheim's 4-0 win against Nashville on Nov. 5 was his third two-goal game this season and the 117th multiple-goal game of his career. Selanne has the most multi-goal games of any active NHL player, and he's now tied with Maurice Richard for 15th-most in League history. ... It's hard to believe that when Jonathan Cheechoo scored in Ottawa's 4-3 shootout victory against Edmonton on Nov. 10, it was his first goal of the season -- ending a 15-game goal drought. Cheechoo, who scored 56 goals in the 2005-06 season, had a pair of 16-game goal droughts last season. The only other active player with at least three 15-game goal droughts after a 50-goal season is Mark Recchi. ... The Red Wings' 9-1 win at Columbus was their largest margin of victory since they beat the Canadiens, 11-1, on Dec. 2, 1995. Fourteen different Detroit players scored points and all 18 Detroit skaters finished the game with either a plus-1 or plus-2 rating. It was the first game in which every Red Wings skater finished with a plus since a 9-0 win against the Oilers at Joe Louis Arena on Oct. 13, 1995. On the other side of the ledger, the eight-goal margin matched the worst losses for the Blue Jackets in their nine seasons in the NHL. Columbus lost 8-0 at home to the Bruins on Feb. 4, 2002 and 10-2 at San Jose on March 30, 2002.


Quote of the Day

I kept refreshing the page on the NHL website after the second round and I was shocked he lasted that long. I'm sure the Coyotes were pretty happy to get him. He's such a good player and he plays big in big games.

— Arizona forward Henrik Samuelsson on prospect Edgars Kulda being drafted by the Coyotes