Heading into today's game against the Colorado Avalanche the L.A. Kings had points in eight of their last 10, and found themselves in a tie for fifth in the Western Conference with the Nashville Predators. The Avs had points in just two of their last 10, finding themselves next to last in the West. It certainly didn't appear that there was anything Colorado could do in this contest that would have any impact on the Kings playoff situation.
Until the 4:21 of the second period.
While battling along the boards for a loose puck, Kings leading scorer Anze Kopitar became tangled up with Avalanche defenseman Ryan O'Byrne and fell backward awkwardly on his right leg. The Kings center is scheduled for an MRI Monday, but head coach Terry Murray has already confirmed that Kopitar will be "out for at minimum of six weeks."
This loss is potentially devastating for Los Angeles. The Kings are not known for their dominating offense. They are in the bottom half of the NHL in goals scored with only 203. Kopitar has notched 25 of them, tied with Dustin Brown for most on the team.
But what the Kings likely will miss most is Kopitar's ability to set up his teammates. He has recorded 47 assists, which is good for eighth in the NHL and the most on his team by a wide margin. Left winger Ryan Smyth believes everyone on the team is going to have to step up in order to try to replace Kopitar's production:
"Kopi[tar] plays a lot of minutes and in a lot of situations. So everybody has to collectively come together and regroup, and everybody has got to fill a role. But our defense is probably the staple of our game, and has been since Terry got here."
Indeed, the defense will definitely be the key to the Kings staying competitive. L.A. is third in the Western Conference in goals allowed with 181 thanks to its deep, young stable of great defenders and goaltenders.
Twenty-five-year-old Jonathan Quick and 22-year-old Jonathan Bernier have shared goaltending duties this season, and while they haven't been the most consistent duo they have done a generally competent job. The biggest issue for the Kings has been deciding which one will start each night. Quick has been the primary starter with 54 games under his belt but Terry Murray has not been afraid to put Bernier between the pipes when he sees something he doesn't quite like with Quick. Quick is the only one with playoff experience, starting all six games last year in the Kings' first-round loss to the Vancouver Canucks.
Quick has started six of the last seven for the Kings and it appears that Murray is planning on him to be his postseason netminder. No matter who Murray decides to put between the pipes postseason, much more is going to be expected of him as the Kings will assuredly struggle to put the puck in the net.
In front of Quick, 21-year-old phenom Drew Doughty leads his defense with 11 goals, a plus-14 rating and 25:43 average time on ice. Joining him are fellow young bucks Jack Johnson (24), Alec Martinez (23) and Matt Greene (27), among others. You can expect this young defense to rely on the experience of a couple lesser-known veterans; journeyman Willie Mitchell (33) and Stanley Cup champion Rob Scuderi (32). Each has several years' worth of playoff experience that the youthful Kings will have to learn from in order for them to handle the pressure of the playoffs.
Offensively, the onus will fall to newly acquired forward Dustin Penner. He was brought in at the trade deadline to help the anemic Kings offense and struggling power play. But in 11 games as a King, Penner has only recorded two goals and four assists—certainly not as much of an impact as general manager Dean Lombardi was expecting. It isn't likely to get easier for Penner as any chemistry he was developing with his current line likely will be destroyed as players will be shuffled around.
The Kings don't have a more important skater than Anze Kopitar and his loss will have a profound impact on the team. Los Angeles will have its work cut out for it, as this is a strong year for goaltending in the West, and the Kings couldn't light the lamp with their most explosive offensive player. The defense has to play mistake-free hockey and Jonathan Quick is going to have to be brilliant in order for them to have a chance at winning the Cup.