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Injuries Create Opportunities for Kings Centers

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings
Michal Handzus and Trevor Lewis both had stints as the Kings' fourth-line center this season. For Handzus, it was a temporary demotion. For Lewis, it was an opportunity.

Now, at the most critical time of the season, both centers -- the veteran and the rookie -- have been thrust into high-profile roles. Together, through their play, Handzus and Lewis might hold the Kings' short-term fate in their hands. Will they thrive, or will they fold?

Anze Kopitar (ankle) and Justin Williams (shoulder), the Kings' top two scorers, both suffered major injuries last week. With the Kings still fighting for a playoff spot in the ultra-tight Western Conference, the losses couldn't have come at a less-opportune time.

Yet, as the well-worn coaching cliche goes, a setback for one is an opportunity for another, and to be certain, the Kings' locker room is the land of opportunity right now.

``It's just going to be a good test for this young hockey club,'' coach Terry Murray said. ``We'll be better when we come through it. There's no question about it. Guys are going to be in a higher situation, more important situation, and they'll grow immensely through this opportunity.''

Jarret Stoll also figures to play a key role for the Kings, but his job responsibilities have not changed significantly during the season. The Kings still need Stoll to be a major source of secondary scoring, but the biggest change will come to Handzus and Lewis.

Michal Handzus celebrates a goal against Colorado last weekend.  Kopitar's injury came in the same game.
Handzus, a 34-year-old veteran of 12 NHL seasons, now replaces Kopitar on the first line, between wingers Dustin Penner and Oscar Moller. Lewis, a 24-year-old rookie, now centers the second line between wingers Ryan Smyth and Dustin Brown.

Both centers are highly adept at their own end of the ice, and are revered for the defensive and penalty-killing skills, but if the Kings are to thrive without Kopitar and Williams over the final two weeks of the regular season, they will need some offense.

``That's why we have 23 guys on the team,'' Handzus said. ``Obviously it hurts, because he's our best player, but everybody goes through injuries, so it's not only about one guy. Everybody has got to step up a little bit higher. Some guys are going to take a little more responsibility, but it's more about the team. It's just the way it is. We cannot go back and we cannot look back. We just look forward. We're going to make up for it and it's going to make us a better team, for sure.''

Kopitar and Williams combined for 130 points this season. Handzus and Lewis have combined for 39 points, with Handzus totaling 11 goals and 18 assists, and Lewis totaling seven goals and 10 assists. How much more offense can the two contribute?

In Handzus' case, the answer is easier to project. Handzus is a former four-time 20-goal scorer in the NHL, and is also a regular on the Kings' power play. His offensive numbers haven't been strong this season, but the potential for more scoring is clearly there.

``I'll try to play my game,'' Handzus said. ``Everybody has got to step up, me too. Everybody has got to do a little bit more, and that's just the way it is. I don't want to change too much. I'm not going to play like Kopi, that's for sure, so I've got to play my game and hope to do a little bit more.

``I still feel that I can be a good offensive player. It's up to me to show it a little bit more often than I have this year. That's what I'm going to focus on a little bit more.''

Trevor Lewis checks Shane Doan of the Phoenix Coyotes earlier this year.  The Coyotes are a potential first-round playoff opponent for the Kings.
As for Lewis, he's essentially a blank page, a story just starting to be written.

Selected in the first round, 17th overall, in general manager Dean Lombardi's first draft with the Kings -- in 2006 -- Lewis had a slow, steady development through the minor leagues, a process delayed by nagging injuries that stunted his progress.

Lewis appeared in five games for the Kings last season, and made the team out of training camp last September but played only sparingly at the start of the season.

After fellow rookie center Andrei Loktionov was assigned to Manchester in early November, Lewis got his chance and hasn't relinquished it. After being a healthy scratch in 10 of the Kings' first 13 games, Lewis had played 62 consecutive games heading into Tuesday's game at Edmonton.

``At the start of the season, I just wanted to show that I belong here,'' Lewis said. `` I think I've just been pretty consistent throughout the year, and I've got to keep going with that, stick with everything I've been doing with the defensive responsibility but just kind of chip in a little bit more. Playing with those two good players, I should be all right.''

What is Lewis' ceiling on offense? It's tough to say. He once scored 35 goals in the junior-level USHL and 29 goals in the OHL, but has yet to top 20 goals since turning pro.

At 6-foor-1, 195 pounds, Lewis has good size and instincts, and is a smart, responsible player, but has yet to display much top-level offensive skill. Murray has indicated that he would consider using Brad Richardson in the second-line center role as well.

``To maintain the tempo of the game, everybody has to make sure that they're changing whatever they can, whatever they have to,'' Murray said. ``They have to do the right stuff on that. Execution is going to be critical. Playing the system, playing with structure is going to be highlighted even more, and then the opportunities, when you do recover the pucks, now be creative. Now try to get something done on the offensive part of the game.''

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