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L.A. Kings' Kopitar shines as big fish from small pool

Los Angeles Kings centre Anze Kopitar is the NHL's one and only Slovenian-born star, but his formative teenage years were spent in Sweden, where he picked up a smattering of the language. In the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Kopitar was able to use that knowledge to his advantage, too.

"A couple of times, in the Vancouver series, when the Sedins were talking on the ice, I tried to get in there [to listen]" said Kopitar, flashing a mischievous grin. "I couldn't pick it all up, but I tried. I think they probably remembered I played there, but I don't know if they know I can understand a whole lot."

Among Kopitar's many talents is the ability to speak bits and pieces of many languages, including Czech, which he picked up because of the number of Czechs coaching in Slovenia. Question: If Kopitar's ear for languages is so practised, how does he handle that unique communication known as Sutter English?

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Kopitar laughed.

"Sutter English? It's true, the first day he came in, I had to get in there pretty close [to hear] because sometimes he speaks really quietly. He's looking around left and right and you've got to [lean in]really good. But I think everybody's used to it now."

The Kings' ability to absorb and adapt to Sutter's message is one of the primary reasons they are 10-1 in the playoffs and halfway to qualifying for their first Stanley Cup final in 19 years. The Kings lead the Phoenix Coyotes 2-0 in the Western Conference final, heading into Thursday's third game, a game in which the Coyotes will play without centre Martin Hanzal, who was suspended one game by the NHL for a dangerous hit from behind against Kopitar's linemate, Dustin Brown.

Brown and goaltender Jonathan Quick are the Kings' leading Conn Smythe trophy contenders, but Kopitar is No. 3 with a bullet, and in the midst of a strong playoff of his own. Through 11 games, he is second on the team in scoring with 13 points, one behind Brown. Kopitar is the Kings' perennial scoring leader, a player whose ability to play at both ends of the rink is what makes him so valued by the team's coaching staff and his teammates.

"I don't want to say Kopi's underrated, but he's very underrated in the D zone, with how hard that he plays," said linemate Justin Williams. "You respect that as a winger, knowing that he's hard on guys in the defensive zone. We get a lot more time in the offensive zone, because he's so good in our zone."

Kopitar missed the playoffs last season, recovering from an ankle injury he suffered in the last few weeks of the season. His absence greatly undermined the Kings in their opening-round loss to the San Jose Sharks, which he was forced to watch from the press box. It means Kopitar's last playoff experience before this spring came two years ago against the Canucks.

"It was a lot of fun," Kopitar said, "but last year, I was pretty devastated because I couldn't play. The toughest part is to watch and not be able to help with anything.

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"This year, we have a pretty good thing going right now, but we know, it's still a long ways away. We just have to take it a game at a time."

Usually, the grassroots-developmental model for young players is pyramid shaped. It begins with a broad base at the bottom and then the quality gradually thins out, the higher up you go. In Slovenia, there is just Kopitar at the pinnacle and not much underneath. How does a player from a non-traditional hockey nation become so adept? It'd be like a Canadian leading the world in surfing.

"Well, there was another guy in Detroit that played this year [Jan Mursak] so the pyramid's building," Kopitar said. "I wouldn't say it's very tall, but we'll get there eventually.

"Personally, I didn't have a guy in the NHL that I could look up to from Slovenia. But it was a pretty good league. Maybe it's a little easier coming from Canada, because you do have the background and everything. Once you play the game, every single guy – it doesn't matter where he's from – falls in and plays as hard as he can because you want to get to the NHL."

Three years ago, Kopitar spent more than a month atop the NHL scoring leaderboard, before fading in the second half and finishing with 81 points. According to Williams, piling up the stats irrelevant to Kopitar. What matters most is winning.

"If you look at the teams that are left, is there anyone in the top 10 in scoring?" Williams said. "A lot of guys put a lot of onus on that, but it has to do with the type of team you have and the type of system you play. You never see him cheating on pucks. When was the last time you saw him on a breakaway? He always seems to be in the right spot. So I don't think it's something on his radar, but certainly, he has the capability of doing it."

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