Kopitar, Kings surprising

STEVE MACFARLANE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:35 AM ET

CALGARY -- The only thing more surprising than the Los Angeles Kings sitting ahead of the Calgary Flames at the quarter pole of the 2009-10 NHL season may be the fact their leader stands alone atop the scoring race.

YOUNG GUN

Or that he's just 22 years old.

And his name's not Sidney Crosby.

Anze Kopitar was five-points clear of his closest competitors before last night's games kicked off. His 14 goals and 18 assists weren't enough to lead either category individually, but the consistent production in both areas of the game have the Kings superstar earning Los Angeles a lot more attention these days.

"Management challenged him," Kings linemate Justin Williams said over the phone during a day off this week as he prepared to battle the Flames at the Staples Center this afternoon.

"I think, mentally, he's challenged himself to not only be the best player on our team, but be one of the best players in the league.

"He's gone the right way with that. He's embraced it.

"He's doing a lot of little things that a leader should do. He's working hard off the ice, just as hard as on the ice. He's worked extremely hard.

FOURTH IN WEST

"It's good to see that's being rewarded."

The Kings are being rewarded as a team, too.

Sitting fourth in the Western Conference -- two points ahead of the Flames -- the Kings are finally challenging for post-season play after missing the playoffs six straight years.

"We've had some ups and downs that, really, a young team is going to have," Williams said. "We're trying to make that next step into a playoff team and a Stanley Cup contender."

The addition of Ryan Smyth seems to have brought the Kings to another level. Before being injured this week, the former Edmonton Oiler was doing some damage on the team's top line along with Williams and Kopitar.

Expected to be out as long as a month with an upper-body injury, Smyth's contributions will be missed.

"I think Ryan Smyth has come over here and brought a calming element," Williams said. "Ryan has been in the league almost 1,000 games now. He's seen almost everything the NHL is gonna give.

STEVE.MACFARLANE@SUNMEDIA.CA

"For the next little while, we're going to have to find other ways."

Williams is a candidate to step up his already impressive production. His five goals and 16 points through 18 games so far are a good sign he's over his devastating Achilles' injury from a year ago.

Of course, Kopitar is proving capable of carrying a team, too.

"Once he gets that confidence, he doesn't lose it easily," Flames centre Craig Conroy said of the Slovenian star, who was a member of the Kings before rejoining the Flames later in the year when Kopitar broke onto the NHL scene with a 20-goal, 61-point rookie season in 2006-07.

"I thought his first year he had a breakout year. Now it's another breakout."

It's not a surprise to Conroy, who watched the 6-foot-3, 222-lb. Kopitar up close as a freshman.

Others, though, can be shocked when they face him on the ice.

"When you see him pick the puck up -- the way he brings it through the neutral zone -- he always beats a guy and he always creates something," Williams said.

"He's got sneaky speed. He's so strong and powerful in his stride that he just beats guys with one move. Sometimes goalies, too."

Which could translate into a long-awaited playoff berth for the Southern Californians.

"I think, really, the sky's the limit for this team. We've done quite a bit of learning," Williams said.

"At the end of the 82-game schedule, there's no doubt in my mind we should be one of those eight playoff teams."

steve.macfarlane@sunmedia.ca


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