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Pacific: Kopitar, Kings movin' on up the standings

by Doug Ward

Anze Kopitar and the Kings have been slowly creeping up the standings in the Pacific during their four-game win streak.

Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar says he opts to wear a dark-tinted visor because it might enable him to sneak up on goalies.

“It feels like the goalie can’t see my as eyes as well as he could if I wore a clear visor,” he says. “Maybe for a split second, when I’m shooting, the goalie can’t see my eyes. And maybe it helps me.”

The Kings are taking a similar approach, trying to sneak up on the rest of the Pacific Division, hoping nobody notices them until it’s too late.

We’re still three weeks shy of Thanksgiving, but even at this early juncture, the presence of the Kings near the top of the Pacific Division qualifies as one of the surprises of the season. After four straight seasons without a playoff appearance, Kopitar believes it’s only a matter of time before the Kings turn things around. He watched as cross-town rival Anaheim won the Stanley Cup last season, and it only served to make him hungrier.

“Watching those games,” Kopitar says, “made me determined to play hockey in late May and make it to the Stanley Cup Final.”

The Stanley Cup Final remains a faraway destination, but the time frame for getting back into the playoffs might be shorter than originally anticipated.

“Our goal is to make the playoffs,” Kopitar says, and maybe the Kings can find their brighter tomorrow, today.

The Kings’ recent four-game winning streak has them sitting at 7-8-0 with 14 points, just one back of San Jose, after the season’s first five weeks.


Kopitar believes he and his teammates are on the threshold of their peak powers.

“The great thing about our core group is that it’s not that young, but it’s not old, either,” he says. “These guys have been in the League for three or four years already, and that helps us with experience.”

Kopitar is referring to the Kings’ young nucleus of Michael Cammalleri (tied for third in the NHL with 11 goals), Alexander Frolov, Dustin Brown, Jack Johnson, and himself. Kopitar liked what he saw of Jonathan Bernier before the 19-year-old goaltender was returned to his junior team.

The Kings already have signed Brown to a six-year extension, and if the entire group can stay together, Kopitar says he can’t help but be optimistic about the future.

Kopitar is doing his part to make sure the Kings’ present is pretty good, too. The 20-year-old Slovenian has five goals and 14 points in his first 15 games this season, which puts him on pace for 27 goals and 76 points. He had 20 goals and 61 points as a rookie a year ago.

The Kings are averaging 3.00 goals per game (10th in the league), while giving up 3.13 goals per game (23rd). But the recent play of goaltender Jason LaBarbera has been encouraging. LaBarbera is 4-2-1 with a 1.60-goals against average and .946 save percentage in his last seven outings, offering hope that the Kings may have found their elusive goaltender. Or at least a good stopgap until Bernier matures. Another pleasant surprise has been the play of backup goalie J.S. Aubin, who had 45 saves in a 5-2 win over the Sharks Friday at San Jose.

It’s early, but if the Kings can continue to sneak up on people, maybe they can end that playoff drought sooner than expected.

“We’ve got to work hard,” Kopitar says. “If we continue to do that, who knows?”

Struggling Stars -- After losing all three games on their recently concluded homestand, the Dallas Stars hope to find some offense in a four-game road trip that takes them through the Pacific Division.

The Stars, who now are an uninspired 6-6-2, are scoring just 2.71 goals per game, 17th in the NHL.

But struggling to find the net is nothing new in Dallas. Giving up goals in by the 10-gallon hat full is what’s uncharacteristic. The Stars rank 17th in the NHL in goals-against average (2.71), and at least part of Dallas’s problems can be traced to inconsistent play in net.


Marty Turco has a bloated 4.67 GAA and a lowly .842 save percentage in his last four appearances before the road trip. Backup Mike Smith is 0-2-0 with a 5.66 GAA and .765 save percentage in his last three games.

Captain Brenden Morrow said the Stars have hit “rock bottom.” They hope to climb back to their customary position near the top of the division during a road swing through Anaheim, San Jose, Phoenix and Los Angeles.

Who’s hot -- After a slow start, Phoenix captain Shane Doan has come around. Doan has four points (one goal, three assists) in his last two games. ...Teammate Ed Jovanovski has four points (one goal, three assists) in four games. ... Going into Monday’s game, the Ducks’ Corey Perry had picked up five points (three goals, two assists) in three games, helping Anaheim win two of those contests. Meanwhile, Anaheim goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere, on the mend from surgery to repair a sports hernia, is beginning to regain his Stanley Cup form: Giguere is 2-0 with a 1.44 goals-against average and .942 save percentage in his last two starts. ... In his first two games after returning from a broken ankle, Anaheim defenseman Mathieu Schneider has three points (one goal, two assists). In Schneider’s first game as a Duck, he scored the winning goal in a shootout victory over Columbus. ...Teammate Chris Pronger has three assists in two games.

Not hot -- Jeff Halpern of Dallas is scoreless in nine games; teammate Mattias Norstrom has not registered a point in 13 contests. ...The Ducks’ Todd Marchant has not scored in six games. ... Rob Blake of the Kings has not scored in his last four games. ... Coyotes’ goaltender Alex Auld has a 4.58 GAA and .857 save percentage in his last two appearances.

Around the Pacific -- Phoenix is an impressive 4-1 on the road, but has a miserable 1-6 record at home. “There’s a difference with how we’re playing on the road and how we’re playing at home,” coach Wayne Gretzky told the Arizona Republic. “We just are not playing with

the same sort of team urgency at home as we are on the road.” … Defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh, 35, is back with the Sharks for his second tour of duty. Ozolinsh last played for the Rangers, appearing in 21 games for the Blueshirts a year ago. … After scoring Saturday night in Los Angeles, San Jose’s Jeremy Roenick is just one marker shy of joining the 500-goal club. … The return to form of the Stanley Cup champions from Anaheim is bad news for the rest of the division. The Ducks averted a winless homestand with a shootout win over Columbus, then looked sharp in 5-2 win over the Coyotes in Phoenix Saturday. It was Anaheim’s first road win of the season. While Anaheim has been buoyed by the return of Schneider from a broken ankle, Todd Bertuzzi, remains sidelined indefinitely with a concussion. Bertuzzi suffered the injury after taking a hit from Minnesota’s Derek Boogaard Oct. 14. … Reports out of Canada suggest Scott Niedermayer has ramped up his workouts, intensifying speculation he will end his self-imposed exile and rejoin the Ducks, possibly before Christmas. … Kings forward Kyle Calder is expected to be sidelined at least two weeks after undergoing surgery last week to repair a broken left thumb.

The week ahead -- Anaheim enters the week with a modest two-game win streak and will look to build on their recent success during a four-game homestand against division rivals. But a 5-0 loss to Dallas Monday got the homestand off to a rocky start. Next up are Phoenix (Wednesday), San Jose (Friday), and Los Angeles (Nov. 13).

Conversely, the Stars will endure a four-game road trip against division rivals in hopes of ending their three-game losing streak. After dropping the back end of a home-and-home set with the Sharks Saturday at Staples Center, the Kings have a full week off. Los Angeles returns to action Saturday at home against Dallas.

In a scheduling oddity, the Coyotes will play three straight games against San Jose (Nov. 10, 12 and 15), followed by back-to-back games against the Kings (Nov. 17 and 21).


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