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Kopitar excited to play meaningful games in March

by Eric Stephens
If the Los Angeles Kings come up short in their bid to end a seven-year playoff drought, they might look back at a bad stretch in February that dropped them out of a crowded group vying for the final spots in the Western Conference.

But no one will be able to put any blame on Anze Kopitar. The 21-year-old Slovenian-born center is doing his part to keep the Kings in it until the end.

Kopitar had a career-best four-game goal-scoring streak snapped Monday against Vancouver, but he has registered eight points in his last five contests. Extend his ledger over the last 28 games and the skilled forward has 13 goals and 16 assists.

"It's a sign of his potential," Kings winger Kyle Calder said. "He's been one of our go-to guys on our team. Those guys have to produce and that's why he's in that role."

A driving force for Kopitar is the fact that he's playing in meaningful games at this time of the season for the first time in his young career. In his first two seasons, the Kings were largely playing out the string in early March.

"Last year, at this time of the year, we all knew we were going to be out of the playoffs," Kopitar said. "Basically you come to the end of the year just looking to get better and try to motivate yourself for games and stuff like that.

"This year, it's way different. You come to the rink knowing you're in the playoff race. It's a lot more fun. There's something to work on every day. It's different. It's a position that I wasn't really in before in these previous three years

"It feels great. I definitely want to be in this kind of position."

The Kings' postseason hopes were buoyed in February by winning four-consecutive games on the road to finish a swing through the Eastern Conference. Seven wins in eight games had their longtime fans craving a post-All-Star break surge that would have Staples Center hosting its first NHL playoff game since the 2001-02 season.

But they came back to their home arena to lose three in a row, two of them via the shootout. It was the start of a 2-7-2 stretch that again put Los Angeles on the outside looking in.

Kopitar said the rebuilding Kings shouldn't be tightening up, given that many preseason predictions didn't have them doing very much this season.

"The fact that everybody was saying we're going to be the last team in the NHL this year, I don't think we should be feeling any pressure," he said. "Of course, there is pressure because you obviously don't want to lose games and stuff like that. But I think everybody's pretty relaxed in here. Everybody's having fun and, at the same time, working hard."

The big center's recent play has him back on a scoring pace befitting his first two seasons. As a 19-year-old rookie, Kopitar shook up the NHL with 20 goals and 61 points and followed that by improving to 32 goals and 77 points while playing all 82 games.

An All-Star for the first time last season, Kopitar is on a pace for 29 goals and 72 points. It didn't seem like he would come close to reaching those totals early on 2008-09 as he struggled to fit into new coach Terry Murray's defense-oriented system.

Kopitar had just one goal in his first 12 games and managed just 29 points in his first 38 games.

"I don't know if I'd say I was struggling," he said. "My expectations were high. But you know, when it's not going, it's just not going. The last couple of weeks, I've got a couple of good bounces. I've had a couple of goals that I usually don't score, a couple of tips and stuff like that.

"That's just how it goes in hockey, I guess. When you're on a roll, everything goes your way. When it's not, everything goes the other way. I definitely feel more confident and more comfortable on the ice right now."
-- Anze Kopitar

"That's just how it goes in hockey, I guess. When you're on a roll, everything goes your way. When it's not, everything goes the other way. I definitely feel more confident and more comfortable on the ice right now."

Murray stressed to Kopitar the importance of improving his defense. It's still a process for the gifted offensive player, who is also on pace to rack up a third consecutive double-digit minus total.

It hasn't helped that the Kings have been under .500 for much of his career.

"Terry talked to me and we had a couple of meetings. He just addressed it as he wants me to be a two-way player," Kopitar said. "A good two-way player that takes care of his own end and obviously creates offense. It took some time in the beginning. I think I've adjusted pretty good after that."

Calder, an eight-year veteran, said he's seen his teammate show the willingness to improve on his game and that "he's got a lot of good years ahead of him.

"He had a good year last year and I think he came into camp this year bigger and stronger," Calder said. "As time goes on, you get better and better in this league. Now he's proving it. He's come on strong and he's playing really well. It's a good time for it."

Kopitar said the Kings are at the stage where they know they can be a good team. The next step is to playoff-caliber status is expecting to win every night.

Sooner than later, he'd like to experience what the Stanley Cup Playoffs are all about.

"I would be disappointed," Kopitar said of not making the playoffs. "We've been playing pretty good hockey. In the beginning of the year, we didn't really find ourselves, if I can put it that way. You need some time to figure things out.

"We're right there. In my mind, I'm pretty confident that we're going to be right there most of the year and hopefully we're going to make it. To be that close and not make it, it's disappointing."
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