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Kopitar Does It Again

by Gann Matsuda

October 8, 2006

LOS ANGELES — Sure, it is very, very early in the 2006-07 National Hockey League season—just two games into the season for the Los Angeles Kings. But they just might have a Calder Trophy candidate for the NHL Rookie of the Year in their midst.

Indeed, with two goals at Anaheim on Friday night and three assists on Saturday night, Kings’ 19-year-old rookie center Anze Kopitar was once again the team’s best player and biggest offensive threat in a 4-1 win over the St. Louis Blues, delighting a sell-out crowd of 18,118 fans at Staples Center in the Kings home opener.

Lubomir Visnovsky, Alexander Frolov, Michael Cammalleri and Brent Sopel scored for the Kings while Martin Rucinsky scored the lone goal for the Blues.

Mathieu Garon got the start in goal for the Kings and was very sharp, making 35 saves.

The Kings dominated the first period, holding the Blues without a shot on goal until 15:57 mark. But the Kings did not come close to scoring on three power play chances and otherwise sputtered offensively.

The Blues started the second period strong, thanks to a 44-second two-man advantage that turn the momentum in their favor and almost gave them a 1-0 lead.

Indeed, the Blues came within a hair of scoring with the two-man advantage, but Garon robbed Blues left wing Petr Cajanek at the right goal post with a spectacular left pad save.

That was one of the difficult saves Garon had to make in the game. But his positioning throughout the game was superb. So much so that he made most saves with a minimum of movement—he made even tough saves look easy in this game, even though he did not get much work early on.

“I was waiting fifteen minutes for my first shot and then I got a couple at the end of the first,” said Garon. “It was good for me to see a couple of pucks before the first intermission.”

Even though the Blues wrested the momentum away from the Kings in the second period, it was the Kings who would draw first blood when defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky scored on the power play at 11:48.

Rucinsky answered right back at 13:07 on a blast from left point to tie the game.

Just over three minutes later, Frolov scored on a rebound in front, closing out the second period scoring.

St. Louis goalie Manny Legace, who made 26 saves in the game, gave up a goal he would want to have back just 14 seconds into the third period when Kings’ forward Michael Cammalleri beat him with a quick shot from the bottom of the left circle.

Late in the period, Kopitar took a lead pass at center ice and blew past a Blues defenseman to go in on Legace. When it was all over, Kopitar failed to get a shot on goal, but had the poise to get the puck to the front of the net where Kings’ defenseman Brent Sopel, who was trailing the play, cleaned up the garbage.

An understatement to be sure, Kopitar has been the story in the Kings’ first two games.

“He’s fitting in very nicely,” said Kings head coach Marc Crawford. “He’s a big-time talent, no doubt about that.”

“The kid can play, he’s got game,” said Cammalleri. “He does a lot of things very well. He’s done it consistently in the exhibition season and in the first two games.”

So far, Kopitar has had no trouble adjusting to the North American game, coming to the NHL directly from the Swedish Elite League.

“I certainly feel comfortable on the ice,” said Kopitar. “I don’t have any problems with the smaller rink or the speed of the game.”

Kopitar has played better than anyone has dreamed so far, but his coach knows that as a 19-year-old rookie, Kopitar still has some things to learn about the NHL game.

Fortunately for the Kings, Kopitar has been an “A” student.

“He seems to be very teachable,” said Crawford. “You tell him something once and he goes out and does it exactly the way you want. He’s a coaches’ son, so he’s probably had that type of upbringing.”

Frolov has been playing on a line with Kopitar in the Kings’ first two games, as well as during the pre-season, and the two are developing some chemistry.

“Frolov and him have supported each other, I can see there’s some chemistry developing between them,” said Crawford.

“When I was young, I kind of watched Russian hockey,” said Kopitar. “It takes a lot of skill and a lot of passing, maybe not that much shooting. [Frolov] and I get along well on the ice.”

And so far, Kopitar is keeping things in the proper perspective.

“I scored my first NHL goal [on Friday at Anaheim] and today I got three assists,” he explained. “It’s really nice, but now it’s my job to keep on playing hard.”

Garon made a strong impression on his coach, who knows that the Kings will need both of their goalies in top form this month.

“We know this is a big month for us,” Crawford explained. “We play fourteen games in something like twenty-five days. We’re going to need both Dan [Cloutier] and Mathieu. We have lots of confidence in Mathieu. He’s a very good goaltender in his own right.”

“I thought Mathieu was very strong tonight,” said Crawford. “He didn’t get a lot of work in the first period. In the second period, he got more and was pretty sharp. He made several really good saves when they were pouring it on and taking chances in the third period.”

Garon pointed to the Kings’ penalty-killing as a positive in this game.

“I think we’ve been playing great on the penalty-kill,” said Garon. “It was so much easier for me. Guys were talking a lot on the ice and we had a great attitude.”

“If we keep playing like that shorthanded, we’ll be successful.”

Regarding his team’s overall performance, Crawford was pleased.

“I thought our support down low and our support coming out of the zone was good,” said Crawford. “It was a huge win for us. Early in the season, you want to get the club believing in themselves and how we have to play. While we’re not there yet, we can certainly build on a lot of the things that have happened in the first two games.”


SCRATCHES
St. Louis: Jason Bacashihua, Roman Polak (both healthy)
Los Angeles: Raitis Ivanans, Tom Kostopoulos, Mike Weaver (all healthy)


GOALIES
St. Louis: Manny Legace
Los Angeles: Mathieu Garon


OFFICIALS
Referees: Mike Hassenfratz, Brad Meier
Linesmen: Shane Heyer, Pierre Racicot


FIRST PERIOD

No scoring...the Kings dominated the period, while the Blues could get nothing going offensively.


SECOND PERIOD

The Blues asserted themselves to open the period, and they had turned the tables on the Kings until...

1. LOS ANGELES. Visnovsky 2 (Frolov, Kopitar), 11:48 POWER PLAY

Blues left wing D.J. King was off for hooking at 11:28 when Blake held the puck in the St. Louis zone at left point. He pushed the puck down the left wing boards where Kopitar got to it and took a hit to make a play. As he was being hit, Kopitar threw a quick pass to Frolov in the left corner. He took a couple of strides towards the net before passing to Visnovsky, who was all alone between the hash marks, and he ripped a one-timer, beating Legace low, just inside the left goal post.

The Blues answered quickly...

2. ST. LOUIS. Rucinsky 1 (Dennis Wideman, Petr Cajanek), 13:07 POWER PLAY

Kings winger Brian Willsie was whistled off for interference at 12:36. Rucinsky got the puck at left point and fired a blast that beat Garon high over his right shoulder.

Garon was screened by at least one St. Louis forward when Rucinsky got the shot off.

“Couldn’t fault [Garon] on the one that beat him,” said Crawford. “It was kind of a seeing-eye shot.”

3. LOS ANGELES. Frolov 1 (Patrick O’Sullivan, Kopitar), 16:11

Blues right wing Lee Stempniak took a pass in the neutral zone, but was immediately hit and run over by Blake. The puck trickled over to Kopitar, who carried it into the St. Louis zone on right wing. At the top of the right circle, he passed to Frolov in the high slot. He spun and passed to O’Sullivan, who got off a little wrist shot from the bottom of the left circle. Legace made the save, but left the rebound on the door step. With Kopitar being pushed into the goal crease by a St. Louis defender, Frolov got to the loose puck and lifted it over Legace and into the net.

The assist was O’Sullivan’s first NHL assist and point.

When the buzzer sounded to end the period, St. Louis had outshot the Kings in the period, 19-8. However, very few of the Blues’ shots were dangerous.


THIRD PERIOD

Legace gave up a soft goal to put the game out of reach...

4. LOS ANGELES. Cammalleri 1 (Derek Armstrong), 0:14

Cammalleri and Armstrong outworked two Blues players to a loose puck in the left corner of the St. Louis zone. Armstrong dug the puck and passed to Cammalleri at the bottom of the left circle. He got off a one-time snap shot that beat Legace through the five-hole (between his leg pads).

Legace saw the shot all the way and Cammalleri’s shot was not an overly hard shot, although he got it off very quickly—a soft goal allowed by Legace.

5. LOS ANGELES. Sopel 1 (Kopitar, Sean Avery), 15:24

Frolov picked up a loose puck on left wing in the Kings’ zone. He cleared the puck ahead to Avery at the Kings’ blue line, and he backhanded a lead pass to Kopitar at center ice. He turned on the jets and blew past Wideman and moved in on Legace. But Legace poked the puck off his stick as he moved in front. Kopitar was able to gain some control of the puck as he moved to the left of the net, and he threw it off the left goal post back to the front of the net. Sopel was trailing the play and had an easy tap-in over Legace who was down in his crease.

Although it appeared that Kopitar was trying to shoot the puck when he banked the puck off the left goal post back to Sopel, replay showed that he was actually trying to pass the puck back in front of the net.

Shortly after this play, Kopitar got the puck on right wing on a two-on-one break. From above the right face-off dot, he flicked a high wrist shot that beat a shocked Legace, but it clanked off the cross bar.

Kopitar’s shot looked like it was an easy wrist shot because it looked so effortless. But in reality, he had ripped a hard wrist shot past Legace.


THREE STARS (OFFICIAL)
#3 - Aaron Miller; #2 - Garon; #1 - Kopitar

KINGSHOCKEY.COM’S THREE STARS
#3 - Frolov; #2 - Garon; #1 - Kopitar

For more information, including more interviews with the players and coaches, we invite you to check out:

OFFICIAL SCORING AND STATISTICS
NHL Scoresheet
NHL Superstats


WIRE SERVICE REPORTS
ASSOCIATED PRESS Report From ESPN.com


LOCAL NEWSPAPERS
Daily News
Garon Sparks Kings

Orange County Register
Kings Are Quick Learners, Take Control Down Stretch

Press-Enterprise
Rookie Is Making Impact For Kings

Los Angeles Times
Kopitar Creating A Buzz


LOCAL NEWSPAPERS
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Penalties Slow Down Winless Blues

NEXT GAME: On Tuesday, the Kings play host to the New York Islanders. Game time: 7:30 PM PDT. Televised in the Los Angeles area on FSN West beginning at 7:00 PM with the Kings Live pre-game show.

Gann Matsuda, who has been writing about the Kings since 1986, is the News Editor for Kingshockey.com.
© 2006, Kingshockey.com. All rights reserved. Duplication and/or distribution is prohibited without permission.