Things sure aren't pretty for the Los Angeles Kings right now. In the thick of a fierce Western Conference playoff battle, the Kings first lost second-leading scorer Justin Williams a short while ago. Then all of the Kings faithful cringed as Anze Kopitar collapsed in an ugly "That foot shouldn't bend that way!" fall over the weekend against the Colorado Avalanche. The diagnosis? Broken ankle, out six weeks.
The numbers are pretty straightforward: Kopitar is the Kings leading scorer, putting up about a point per game. As forwards go, Kopitar is getting about 22 minutes per game, with 3:37 per game on the power play and 2:03 per game shorthanded. There's simply no replacing the 23-year-old All-Star, either in terms of talent or ice time.
As for miracle returns, consider that there are about two weeks left in the regular season, then the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs will start about three weeks after that. Should Kopitar's MRI reveal that things aren't nearly as bad as originally thought, there's a chance that Kopitar might be able to come back mid-way through the second round (and Justin Williams should be back by then too).
Can LA get that far in the first place? As Kings captain Dustin Brown put it:
"You don't want to have your best player go down, but if that's the case, we need to shoulder the responsibility collectively and find a way."
So, how will the Kings survive this? Perhaps Terry Murray and company should look out east, where the Pittsburgh Penguins managed what should have been a death sentence -- an uncertain concussion to Sidney Crosby and a season-ending knee injury to Evgeni Malkin. Instead, the Penguins are thriving and heading into the playoffs in a position of strength.
Pittsburgh modeled its own form of team evolution, and the result is a tougher and stronger Penguins team that, as players have acknowledged, wouldn't have surfaced without these catastrophic injuries -- the ol' "What doesn't kill you..." proverb put into hockey terms.
However, the Penguins had their own kinks to work out, as February wasn't particularly kind to Pittsburgh. On the other hand, the Penguins managed to change their entire game to adapt to their two fallen stars. The pressure was on to promote team defense from the top down, especially with newcomer James Neal failing to find any sort of rhythm without a setup center and Jordan Staal alternating between hot and cold (though Staal does have nine points in 12 games this month).
Instead, success came from a commitment to a tough defensive game that held the opposition to two goals or less in seven of the last ten games. A big part of that was goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury taking control of the team, and it's an example of how a player can step forward and take the lead in this type of situation.
For the Kings, they've got the personnel to do it. Dustin Penner is certainly capable of putting up more points than he has while Dustin Brown and Ryan Smyth are players that can lead by example. Wayne Simmonds has shown flashes of offensive streaks while Alexei Ponikarovsky is certainly better than his meager 15 points this season.
By themselves, none of these players can fill in the 1-2 void left by Kopitar and Williams, but a greater commitment to team defense (which shouldn't be difficult under a Terry Murray system), scoring by committee, and an emergent leader during this rough stretch can keep things status quo for at least the duration of the regular season. And in net, Jonathan Quick's .930 save percentage for March provides a heck of a starting point.
The kicker to all this is the fact that LA's goals-against was already the best in the Pacific Division, and their goals-for has been middle-of-the-road all season long. And unlike the Penguins, the Kings don't have the luxury of months to sort this all out.
So perhaps it boils down simply to this: Jonathan Quick can't have an off night, the Kings team defense must maintain its play from the past nine games (seven games with two or fewer goals-against) and someone has to step forward and fill in for Kopitar's offensive production. In Saturday's game, Ryan Smyth was first star with a goal and an assist. Perhaps that's the best place to start.
For the latest on the Anze Kopitar injury situation, be sure to check out Jewels From The Crown.