Los Angeles Kings must keep winning without Anze Kopitar

Underrated is a relative term.

Some might scoff at the idea of Los Angeles Kings star Anze Kopitar being underrated, considering the fact that he played in the 2011 NHL All-Star Game. Others might be quick to list him as such, though, based on the fact that his Kings often play beyond many media members’ bed times so his efforts go largely unheralded. He also plays more of a two-way game, so even if he reaches nice point totals, he doesn’t – and might not ever – push his way toward the 100-point totals that generate Hart Trophy attention.

Yet however one might frame Kopitar’s talents relative to other elite players, few would question the notion that he is an enormously important skater for the Kings. Aside from stud defenseman Drew Doughty and steady goalie Jonathan Quick, Kopitar stands high above the other players on this roster. Some might say he’s even more valuable than Doughty, especially in a 2010-11 season that featured some tough moments for the outstanding young blueliner.

Either way, the Kings must find a way to compete without Kopitar. Los Angeles continued its disturbing tradition of stars suffering catastrophic injuries Saturday night, as Kopitar broke his ankle during a fairly routine board play that went terribly wrong.

This comes on the heels of Justin Williams’ latest unnerving injury, but the difference is that Kopitar doesn’t have a track record of getting hurt often. In fact, Helene Elliott mentions the fact that his 330 consecutive games played streak is a club record that will sadly stop at 330 when the Kings play the Oilers on Tuesday.

Elliott caught up with Kings captain Dustin Brown and head coach Terry Murray, who discussed how they will react to playing without Kopitar.

“He’s our best player. We’ve got to find a way either way,” team captain Dustin Brown said. “Injuries happen during the year. You don’t want to have your best player go down, but if that’s the case we’ve got to shoulder the responsibility collectively and find a way because no other team is going to feel sorry for us.”

(snip)

“I’ve been through these kinds of things before, with top guys being out with injuries and it’s an opportunity,” Murray said. “Other guys step up. The character of the team needs to step up.

“Everybody has to do the right things. You’ve got to trust your structure and your system and give it the best opportunity you can now as a group to finish things off and play the right way.”

(snip)

“We have to move on. We have games to play,” Murray said. “And we have games to win.”

Winning those games won’t be easy, but the Kings have a good chance of holding onto a playoff spot, even if they might sink from fifth place to a lower seed without Kopitar. They currently have 92 standings points with seven games remaining, giving them six more points than the ninth-ranked Dallas Stars, who have 86 points with eight games left.

Of course, there’s a big difference between making the playoffs and making an impact once you get there. If that is going to happen, it will require leaders like Brown and Doughty to step up while quiet role players such as Ryan Smyth will need to raise their games.

It won’t be easy, but we might find out a lot about these Kings without Kopitar.

Rangers punch playoff ticket to wrap up night of clinched spots

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The New York Rangers weren’t ecstatic that Chris Tierney‘s 4-4 goal sent their game to overtime against the San Jose Sharks, but either way, getting beyond regulation punched their ticket to the playoffs on Tuesday night.

For the seventh season in a row, the Rangers are in the NHL’s postseason. They fell to the Sharks 5-4 in overtime, so they haven’t locked down the first wild-card spot in the East … yet. It seems like a matter of time, however.

The Rangers have now made the playoffs in 11 of their last 12 tries, a far cry from the barren stretch where the Rangers failed to make the playoffs from 1997-98 through 2003-04 (with the lockout season punctuating the end of that incompetent era).

New York has pivoted from the John Tortorella days to the Vigneault era, and this season has been especially interesting as they reacted to a 2016 first-round loss to the Penguins by instituting a more attacking style. The Metropolitan Division’s greatness has overshadowed, to some extent, how dramatic the improvement has been.

This result seems like a tidy way to discuss Tuesday’s other events.

The drama ends up being low for the Rangers going forward, and while there might be a shortage of life-or-death playoff struggles, the battles for seeding look to be fierce.

Oilers end NHL’s longest playoff drought; Sharks, Ducks also clinch

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There’s something beautiful about the symmetry on Tuesday … unless you’re a Detroit Red Wings fans, maybe.

On the same night that the longest active NHL playoff streak ended at 25 for Detroit, the longest playoff drought concluded when the Edmonton Oilers clinched a postseason spot by beating the Los Angeles Kings 2-1.

The Oilers haven’t reached the playoffs since 2005-06, when Chris Pronger lifted them to Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final.

In doing so, other dominoes fell. Both the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks also punched their tickets to the postseason.

The Sharks, of course, hope to exceed last season’s surprising run to the 2016 Stanley Cup Final.

Meanwhile, the Anaheim Ducks continue their run of strong postseasons, even as their Cup win fades to the background ever so slightly. All three teams are currently vying for the Pacific Division title.

The Western Conference’s eight teams are dangerously close to being locked into place, as the Nashville Predators, Calgary Flames and St. Louis Blues are all close to looking down their spots as well.

Want the East perspective? Check out this summary of Tuesday’s events from the perspective of the other conference.

Craig Anderson took his blunder hard – probably too hard – in Sens loss

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Members of the Ottawa Senators were quick to come to Craig Anderson‘s blunder (see above) in Tuesday’s 3-2 shootout loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, and it’s easy to see why.

It’s not just about his personal struggles, either. When Anderson’s managed to play, he’s been flat-out phenomenal, generating a .927 save percentage that ranks near a Vezina-type level (if he managed to play more than 35 games).

Goaltending has been a huge reason why Ottawa has at least a shot of winning the Atlantic or at least grabbing a round of home-ice advantage, so unlike certain instances where teams shield a goalie’s failures, the defenses are absolutely justified.

Anderson, on the other hand, was very hard on himself.

You have to admire Anderson for taking the blame, even if in very much “hockey player” fashion, he’s not exactly demanding the same sort of credit for his great work this season.

Just about every relevant team in the East playoff races won tonight

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After Eastern Conference teams deserved a “C” on Monday, they generally passed Tuesday’s tests with flying colors. Sometimes they carved out three-point games when relevant teams faced off, too.

It’s almost bewildering trying to figure out where to start … so how about the top of the East?

Metro’s rich get richer

The Minnesota Wild deserve credit for fighting back from a considerable deficit, including overcoming an Alex Ovechkin hat trick (all on the power play). Ultimately, T.J. Oshie‘s overtime-winner gave Washington the 5-4 (OT) win.

Elsewhere in the Metro’s top ranks, Sergei Bobrovsky grabbed his 41st win of the season (3-1 win against the Sabres) to put Columbus three points behind the Capitals and two ahead of the idle Penguins.

Metro top three (all with 75 games played)

1. Capitals – 108 points
2. Blue Jackets – 105 points
3. Penguins – 103 points

Canadiens gain ground

The Montreal Canadiens handled the Dallas Stars 4-1 in The Epic Battle of the Benns. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Flyers beat the second-place Senators 3-2 via a shootout

Both the Maple Leafs and Bruins won their games, leaving Toronto one point ahead of Boston for third in the Atlantic.

Atlantic top five

1. Canadiens – 95 points in 76 games played
2. Senators – 91 points in 75 GP
3. Maple Leafs – 87 points in 75 GP

Bruins – 86 points in 76 GP
Lightning – 83 points in 75 GP

Finally, let’s look at the final spot in the East

OK, so there’s some overlap here. Why don’t we check on the most wild-card-relevant teams?

Third Atlantic spot: Leafs – 87 points in 75 GP

Final spot: Bruins – 86 points in 76 GP

Lightning – 83 points in 75 GP
Islanders – 82 points in 75 GP
Hurricanes – 82 points in 75 GP
Flyers – 80 points in 76 GP
Panthers – 77 points in 76 GP

Again, the Bruins won, as did the Flyers. The Lightning were idle. The Panthers fell to the Maple Leafs. Buffalo lost while Detroit and New Jersey are out of the running.

You know who deserves special mention outside of the top eight? The Carolina Hurricanes deserve such a distinction, as they are enjoying one of their hottest runs in franchise history after beating Detroit 4-1.

The overall message: just about any truly relevant team at least grabbed a standings point, with most winning games outright on Tuesday.

It doesn’t exactly thin the herd, but it keeps the door open for a fun race to the finish.