Despite being in just his first year in a Los Angeles Kings jersey, rookie Anze Kopitar has quickly learned that one of the team’s most hated rivals is just down the freeway. Despite never having met in the playoffs, the Kings and Anaheim Ducks have always shared a mutual hatred of one another.
“You can feel [the excitement] in the building,” said Kopitar. “These games are really, really fun to play.”
While the Kings have struggled against the Ducks this season, the Kings young center Kopitar has had success against them individually and in the process has gained a devoted fan following. The 2005 first round pick has scored two goals and five points against the Ducks in four games, more than against any other team he has faced. But while Kopitar has had success against the Ducks in the past as an individual, he and teammate Craig Conroy felt the team win earlier this month was even more important for the psyche of a fragile team.
“Well as good as they are, this is our biggest rival and a team not very far away and maybe they are the best team in hockey but for us to get a mental win — that was huge, huge,” Conroy emphasized.
“Especially for the young guys who have never beaten them, this is big to say ‘hey we can play with them.’”
“After the last game, we knew we can beat them because we played equal the last two periods so yeah we were confident. Coming out hard, we just showed we have good character on the team.”
Character happens to be something that Kopitar has in spades. The Slovenian entered the season as one of the top ranked rookies in the league. At just 19 years old, he has played in a World Championship, enjoyed time on a line with All-Star Joe Thornton, and spent parts of two seasons playing for Sodertalje SK of the Swedish Elite League.
With such an impressive resume, it is no wonder that the 6’4, 220-pound forward is a player the Kings are hoping will be a key member of their rebuilding efforts.
“He doesn’t look like a 19-year-old,” said Kings veteran defenseman Mattias Norstrom. “He looks like an older player and sure it helps our team a lot. Going back 10 to 15 games, the first 15 games of the season he was our best player. He’s still [one of our best players], no lapses.”
Norstrom has been particularly impressed with Kopitar’s solid play in both ends of the ice, something that usually isn’t found in young goal scorers.
“He does everything the right way, that’s not always the case with young players. You usually talk about their big upside on the offensive side but Anze I would call him almost an old school, old time centerman. He always is in good position in his own end. He never cheats on his own end. For his age, he is a really smart player.”
Kopitar recently came in second place in voting for the NHL’s Rookie of the Month for November scoring three goals and 10 points in 13 games while averaging 20:11 minutes of ice time per game. He finished second in voting behind Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin and ranks second behind Malkin in overall rookie scoring for the season.
While Kopitar’s scoring has gained him plenty of notice, he insists he doesn’t pay attention to the accolades.
“I’m not really looking at that right now. Our team was in a little bit of a tough time [in November] so I was focused on that to get better and to get our team going too and to get some wins but that’s certainly a good thing to be runner up and I’ll just keep trying to go like that.”
Coming off a torrid start to the season, Kopitar has continued to play well scoring five points in the eight games played thus far in December. But with 28 points in just 34 games, Kopitar admits that even he was surprised at how easily he’s transitioned to the NHL game.
“Well, yeah I was a little surprised,” admitted Kopitar smiling. “I mean it’s not easy but I thought it was going to be a little harder to come from Europe all the way to the best league in the world. Obviously I’m just really having fun and I’m just looking forward to each game.”
And while Kopitar looks forward to each game, the Kings and their veterans are looking forward to building a future with a star like Kopitar in the line-up.
“It’s crucial for any team in this league if you have a young player that can step in and play at the NHL level his first year playing pro,” said Norstrom. “That would help any team and it helps our team tremendously. He’s going to have a long, long career in the NHL.”
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.