Los Angeles Kings v Phoenix Coyotes

Kopitar brings his all-around game back to the Kings

Anze Kopitar doesn’t look like a guy who is recovering from the first serious injury of his career. These days he looks like a normal, healthy hockey player. He’s taller than most, he’s visibly stronger than most, and his mop top is curlier than most. The little tell-tale signs that clue outsiders that he’s an imposing professional athlete. Just looking at him—is this really the guy who suffered a gruesome injury towards the end of the regular season last year?

He looks exactly as you’d expect a professional athlete to look. Yet simple visuals don’t tell the entire story of the last six months of his life, the lost expectations that followed him to the locker room on that fateful Saturday afternoon last March, or the expectations that now sit on his healthy, broad shoulders.  By all accounts, Anze Kopitar is just another healthy NHL player this preseason looking to get his season started on the right foot (no pun intended). Kings head coach Terry Murray has said that Kopitar has put in the offseason work that the organization expected as he recovered from his injury:

“Kopitar is coming back off of a very serious injury and he looks great,” he said. “He spent a hard summer again with the conditioning program. He looks good in the first few days of the training camp. He’s a great player and he just keeps getting better as he gets more mature and experienced in the game.”

Despite seeing his season cut short, Kopitar still managed to score 25 goals and 72 points in 75 games. The seven games he missed at the end of the season were the first games he had missed since his rookie year in 2006-07. But it wasn’t just the games he missed—it was the timing of his injury.

Kopitar recently spoke about watching his team perform in the playoffs without him. “Yeah, that was definitely tough. The timing of my injury was bad and obviously missing the playoffs was [bad]. Just not being able to help them on the ice, it was tough to watch.”

The casual observer sees Kopitar, the flashy offense, and the point-per-game stats and understands that losing their #1 center created a huge void in the Kings lineup. But people around the team will tell you that it wasn’t the offense that the Kings missed the most during their first round series against the San Jose Sharks. In the six playoff games without their star center, the Kings still managed 20 goals. Instead, it was Kopitar’s two-way ability and presence in the important moments of a game that the Kings missed most.

“Last season was probably the best season I’ve had as a two-way player,” Kopitar said. “The stats came out a little better than previous years. I just want to build on that. I don’t want to be just pushing the offensive side right now because we have Mike [Richards] coming in and [Jarret] Stoll being our third guy. But the game isn’t going to change for me.”

He has the skill of a small, talented player. He has the defensive awareness of a man with half his skill. And has the maturity of players twice his age.

Over the course of the preseason, Kopitar will look to regain the timing that made him an all-star last season. Management and the coaching staff have both acknowledge that he’s 100% and Murray has explained that he has no hesitation to put him out in any situation. The head coach went on to admit that, instead of protecting Kopitar in the preseason, he expected to push him a little harder to “get him back into it.”

For the Kings to accomplish all of their lofty goals this season, they’ll need a healthy Kopitar to continue to grow into the true #1 center that he’s shown signs of becoming. The team is deep down the middle with new acquisition Mike Richards and the versatile Jarret Stoll, but Kopitar still sits at the head of the class. As far as 1-2 punches go, the Kopitar/Richards duo is as formidable as any in the Western Conference.

The next step is to show the league they as good on the ice as they are on paper.  A healthy Kopitar will go a long way towards exhibiting their strength for the entire league to see.

Stars put Spezza on injured reserve, recall Faksa from AHL Texas

Dallas Stars v Arizona Coyotes
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Sitting three points out of top spot in the Central Division and on the eve of an important divisional clash on home ice with the Chicago Blackhawks, the Dallas Stars have placed center Jason Spezza on injured reserve retroactive to Thursday, the club announced on Friday.

Spezza, 32, was injured during Thursday’s game against the Colorado Avalanche. The Stars can move back to within a point of Chicago for the division lead with a regulation win on Saturday.

In 52 games this season, Spezza has 18 goals and 40 points, which ties him with Patrick Sharp for fourth on the team in total points.

With Spezza out, the Stars recalled 22-year-old forward Radek Faksa from the Texas Stars in the AHL.

Faksa has 15 goals and 26 points in 28 games this season with Texas. In 18 games with the NHL Stars, he has one goal and three points.

Hitch’s recipe for more goals is a pretty simple one

Ken Hitchcock, David Backes, Dmitrij Jaskin, Paul Stastny, Patrik Berglund
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Ken Hitchcock wants the Blues to spend more time attacking and less time defending.

Because hockey isn’t rocket science, that’s why.

“To score and win games in the National Hockey League…you have to spend as much time in the offensive zone as you can,” Hitchcock told the Post-Dispatch.

“When you’re occupying the offensive zone more, you’re forechecking more. When you’re occupying the offensive zone more, the goalie has to make saves. They’re having to defend more. And the opposing team takes penalties on you. So they’re all connected. … What I want to see from us is staying on the puck for longer stretches.”

According to the stats, the Blues have not been spending as much time in the offensive zone as we’re used to seeing from them. In fact, in their last 20 games, they rank in the bottom third of the league in score-adjusted Corsi. That compares to their first 20 games when they were in the top third.

The result is fewer shots, and more importantly, fewer goals. The Blues have fallen all the way to 25th in offense, averaging just 2.37 goals per game. Last year, they finished fifth (2.91).

Yes, some of that may be due to the absence of Jaden Schwartz, and he should be back soon. But there’s a reason people are watching GM Doug Armstrong as the Feb. 29 trade deadline approaches. This team could probably use another piece up front.

The Blues host Minnesota Saturday.

St. Louis has scored just five goals in its last five games.

Goalie nods: Lindback ‘really excited’ for first start in almost three weeks

Anders Lindback
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Tonight in Anaheim, Anders Lindback will make his first start for the Arizona Coyotes since Jan. 16.

The Coyotes have been riding rookie Louis Domingue since just before Christmas, but Domingue has allowed five goals in each of his last three starts, including last night’s 5-4 loss to Chicago.

Lindback’s last appearance came Tuesday in relief, when he allowed one goal on 10 shots in a 6-2 loss to the Kings.

Lindback was in goal for one of Arizona’s three victories this season over Anaheim, stopping 33 of 36 shots in a 4-3 overtime win on Nov. 9. However, his .896 save percentage ranks among the lowest in the league.

Frederik Andersen is expected to start for the Ducks.

Elsewhere…

— No word yet on a Penguins starter in Tampa, but Ben Bishop will go for the Bolts.

Cam Ward will start for the Hurricanes in Winnipeg, where Connor Hellebuyck is expected for the increasingly desperate Jets.

— Joonas Korpisalo was solid last night in Vancouver, but the Blue Jackets have not announced their starter for tonight’s game in Calgary. Karri Ramo will be in goal for the Flames.

A ‘pretty solid two-way player,’ Sundqvist to make NHL debut for Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins' Oskar Sundqvist (49) collides with Minnesota Wild's Jason Zucker (16) in the first period of a NHL preseason hockey game in Pittsburgh, Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
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The latest Penguins injuries, these ones to Evgeni Malkin and Eric Fehr, have led to an opportunity for Oskar Sundqvist.

Sundqvist will make his NHL debut for the Penguins tonight in Tampa. The 21-year-old center has five goals and 11 assists in 39 AHL games this season.

“Sunny’s a pretty solid two-way player,” coach Mike Sullivan said, per the Tribune-Review.

“I don’t think he’s going to dazzle you with flashy plays, but I think he’s a guy who plays the game the right way. He’s hard to play against because of his size. He’s got a long reach, and he’s got a good stick.”

Sundqvist was selected 81st overall by the Pens in 2012. He’ll become the fourth player out of that Pittsburgh draft class to make his NHL debut, after Olli Maatta, Derrick Pouliot, and Matt Murray.

Veteran Matt Cullen will replace Malkin on the second line, skating with wingers Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel.

Related: Nick Bonino out ‘at least a month’ with hand injury