Anze Kopitar building his name
He's a hero in Slovenia, but Game 1 OT winner raises Kings center's profile
NEWARK, N.J. -- It was just after 5 a.m. in Slovenia when Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar scored his game-winning goal in overtime Wednesday night, beating the New Jersey Devils, 2-1, in the opening game of the Stanley Cup finals.
Safe to say, the party should last all day in one of Europe's smallest countries.
Kopitar, the first Slovenian to play in the NHL, has long been a hero in his home country but has remained relatively unknown to the casual hockey fan, particularly those who live on the East Coast and don't stay up late to watch him play.
That's likely to change after the highlight-reel move he made on the sport's biggest stage and against a future Hall of Fame goalie, giving the Kings their ninth consecutive road victory in these playoffs and 11th straight postseason win away from Staples Center dating to last season.
After the Kings struggled for most of the game to find a way around 40-year-old Martin Brodeur, Kopitar collected a centering pass from Justin Williams at the blue line, leaving nothing but ice between him and the New Jersey netminder.
"I yelled for the puck," Kopitar said. "He chipped it obviously perfect, right on my tape."
Kopitar headed straight at Brodeur, widened his stance as he moved into the slot, allowing him to curb his momentum. Like a batter looking for a fastball and getting fooled by a changeup, Brodeur made the first move, leaning forward with his stick paddle square to the ice. Kopitar pulled the puck back to his forehand, then flicked a left-handed shot under Brodeur's outstretched legs as the netminder sprawled on his stomach.
"Marty is a world-class goalkeeper, but I think I got the best of him tonight," Kopitar said.
It was a move for the ages, certainly, but nothing out of the ordinary for those who have watched Kopitar throughout his six-year career.
Exactly one month earlier, he was in a similar position on the ice while the Kings were killing a power play against the St. Louis Blues in Game 2 of their second-round series. Dustin Brown forced a turnover in the St. Louis zone, passed the puck to the center of the ice and Kopitar put the same fright in the eyes of goalie Brian Elliott as he bore down on the crease.
Only that time, Kopitar followed up his juke with a backhand, giving the Kings a 2-0 lead on their way to a series sweep.
Kopitar said he elected to go to his forehand against Brodeur because he had beaten him with a backhand "a few years ago," and figured Brodeur was looking for that move again.
As Kopitar has repeatedly shown in his career, there's nothing predictable about his game.
The goal was the seventh of these playoffs for the two-time All Star and the ninth postseason marker of his career.
The 24-year-old made a name for himself as a talented youth player in Slovenia, then decided it was time to face stiffer competition and moved to Sweden when he was 16.
As a wide-eyed 17-year-old, he was the highest-ranked European player at the 2005 NHL draft, where he was taken 11th overall by the Kings.
He joined L.A. a year later, scoring two goals in his NHL debut against the Anaheim Ducks and has never looked back. He finished with 20 goals and 41 assists that season, the third-most points by a rookie behind Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Paul Stastny of the Colorado Avalanche.
He made his first All-Star team the following season, the youngest player to appear in the game. He was rewarded the next season with a seven-year, $47.6-million contract, money that looks even more well spent after his latest heroics.
In the locker room afterward, Kopitar likely shared a few back slaps and high fives, then began looking forward to Game 2 back at Prudential Center on Saturday night.
And back home in Slovenia, they might just be building a statue right about now.
Dan Arritt covers hockey for ESPNLosAngeles.com.