Sure, we gripe, we West Coast hockey fans.
Here’s one you heard a lot last year: Drew Doughty won’t win the Norris, because nobody “back East” knows enough about him. This year, it’s the Ducks’ Cam Fowler won’t get the Rookie of the Year because he’s not visible enough with the main NHL media people. And most of the time, we’re right.
So when a team that plays on the left coast gets some attention on Hockey Night in Canada, it’s either very good, or very, very bad.
For the LA Kings on Saturday, the latter was the truth. Ron McLean threw it over to the guys on the “I-desk” with the words, “The news is a lot worse for the LA Kings.”
The guys there immediately responded, “It’s awful for the Los Angeles Kings.” And then they confirmed what Kings fans had been absorbing for an hour or more since the moment “it” happened: an injury to the team’s offensive superstar.
Coach Terry Murray had just announced that Anze Kopitar had a broken ankle and would be out six weeks. An MRI will be done on Monday to further assess things, it was reported.
Anyone who saw the game knew it was going to be something like that. I, your Kings’ correspondent for six years and almost 250 NHL games, was at home on IR (bad cold etc.), watching on TV, so I didn’t get things firsthand like I would normally do. But the story remains the same.
Kopitar was the team’s leading scorer going into the afternoon with 72 points, and he added an assist on the team’s first goal to make it 25-48-73. He had also recently set a team record for having played the most games in a row by a Kings’ player, with 325 bettering the old record held by Marcel Dionne at 324. Kopitar has been in every team contest since March 21st, 2007. This was his 330th game in a row. That the makes the irony of his injury perhaps even harder to take.
Kopitar was digging a puck out of the left corner late in period two when he tried to move backwards against Avs defenseman Ryan O’Byrne. As he did so, Kopitar got the toe of his right skate blade stuck firmly in the ice, almost like he was wearing figure skates with toe picks on them. The leg stayed where it was as his body tumbled backwards over it as the fulcrum. The leg twisted—it seems cliched to say “grotesquely,” but that’s how it looked—and he fell down in a heap.
Being a warrior, Kopitar tried to get up, but he went down again and had to be helped off the ice.
The report was given about five minutes into period three that he had a “lower body injury” and was unlikely to return. Knowing the extent of the injury as cited above, fans now understand that that was only a formality. Note that O’Byrne had no responsibility for malice on the play, and a penalty was not given, nor discussed by the TV guys.
In those immediate minutes post-injury, Kings’ color man Jim Fox and announcer Bob Miller tried to get a sense of the damage, but, Fox said it best.
“It just didn’t look like one of those situations it would be easy to come out of.”
The question for the team is, on a scale of “no big deal” to “worried sick,” where on the scale does this fall? For Fox, the latter are the more accurate words. He said during the period break on TV, “as an announcer, I can’t do anything about the rest of the game, and maybe that’s why I feel the way I do—I feel sick to my stomach because I can’t [remedy the situation].” He was indicating that a player has to go out there and play on, but with the injury in the back of his mind. But the announcer, from a distance, can really feel the weight of the problem.
As Fox was talking about the injury, the same words about the gravity of the situation could apply to the team. Without Kopitar, what becomes of the Kings? The announcers tried to put some positives to things by pointing out that Trevor Lewis, who was moved up from his fourth-line spot, would have to take more of a role, and that he was able to do that. They said that he had been concentrating on defense on the fourth line, but that he was capable of more offense.
And in fact — playing with Ryan Smyth and Dustin Brown in the third period — Lewis scored a lovely goal. Smyth gathered the puck in the neutral zone off the turnover and feathered it to Lewis on a three-on-one. The youngster got the pass and lofted it over Peter Budaj’s shoulder. Nice finish. He had set up the team’s third goal earlier in the frame, a wrap-around spin move by Smyth with Brown getting the other assist on that one.
Smyth, the first star of the game, said after that they all have to concentrate on their jobs. He didn’t mention Kopitar particularly, though the question was about the loss of the Slovenian. But he did suggest that the rest just must buckle down and do what they can do.
As Fox said after, Smyth has been through it all. He’s seen guys go down before, and he’s been on teams where they’ve survived such things. That’s what the team and the fans hope, as they look forward to Kopitar returning, if my guess is right, middle of the conference semis. But that also presupposes that the rest can finish their last handful of games well, and they’re not exactly a team with goal scoring to spare. In other words, the conference semis can’t, by any measure, be presumed.
Oh how fast things change.