For a while it looked as if Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar was without question the best NHL player who would not be going to the 2010 Olympics. Then his skyrocketing star status began to fade along with his production through most of November and all of December.
Now, he's back.
After recording only 6 points on 2 goals and 4 assists in 14 December games, Kopitar regained his swagger in January and finished the month with 17 points on 7 goals and 10 assists in 14 games.
Once the NHL's scoring leader, Kopitar again is in the top 15, with 56 points, after picking up an assist on Drew Doughty's game-winning, last-minute power-play goal that lifted Los Angeles to a somewhat improbable 3-2 victory against the Devils on Sunday night.
He finished the Kings' just-concluded 5-0-0 road trip with 4 goals and 5 assists.
"Obviously with the start that I had my confidence was pretty high, but then you get into a little slump and you're fighting the puck and not shooting as accurate or whatever," Kopitar, who now has 23 goals and 33 assists, told NHL.com. "As soon as you get a couple of goals and a couple of assists you start to feel good again and it's a lot easier again."
Kopitar can't go to the Olympics because his native Slovenia did not qualify for the tournament. Instead, he said he's going to enjoy his time off with his girlfriend and maybe spend a few nights in Aspen.
That vacation will feel a whole lot better if both he and the Kings can continue at their current pace for the next two weeks.
The Kings have won six straight and eight of their last nine to climb within two points of fourth place in the Western Conference. Five of L.A.'s last six games before the Olympic break will be at home, starting Tuesday against the New York Rangers.
"It's obviously a big time for us right now," Kopitar said. "We had a good road trip. We wanted to finish it off right and get back home. I'm sure the coaches will stress the importance of that span of six games before the break, which are obviously huge games. Those are the points that we have to collect."
The Kings' current hot streak coincides with Kopitar's resurgence.
After scoring a League-high 30 points through the first 19 games of the season, Kopitar started slumping Nov. 13. He managed only 11 points (2 goals, 7 assists) over the next 22 games before the calendar flipped to 2010.
"I don't know if I got away from playing my game. I sure tried it, but maybe it was not working for me," said Kopitar, who needed 12 games to score his first 10 goals, but 39 to score his next 10. "My mindset wasn't any different than it was from the start of the season. You go through ups and downs and great players don't let those downs be more than just a couple of games. That's the thing that I still have to work on."
Kings coach Terry Murray believes Kopitar's production slipped in part because he couldn't find chemistry with his linemates.
He had it in spades with Justin Williams and Ryan Smyth through the first month or so of the season. The trio made up the League's hottest line until Williams went out for five games in late October with a lower-body injury.
Williams came back Nov. 2, but a little over two weeks later Smyth banged up his ribs, forcing him to miss 16 games from Nov. 18-Dec. 17. Two shifts into their first game back together Dec. 26, Williams broke his ankle. He's out indefinitely.
"I think the lack of players messed up the chemistry and now he's trying to find it again," Murray said. "At the end of the day, 'Kopi' has to make that decision himself. His attitude is that he's going to get things turned around and get back on track. He's a power guy and when you see him grabbing the puck and skating with the authority that he has in the last eight to 10 games, you know he's heading in the right direction again."
Kopitar spent most of the Kings' road trip centering Wayne Simmonds and Brad Richardson. He credited the energy he gets from those two as a reason why he again is productive, but Murray saw Kopitar turning the corner before the Kings headed east.
Instead of backing away, he started skating hard through the middle of the defense. He started to show the desire to want the puck on his stick and want to do something good with it.
"I felt for a couple of games Kopitar was playing maybe the best he had played all year long," Murray said. "He has come through a little bit of a downturn and come back with great energy. He's starting to give it again."
Contact Dan Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org