Los Angeles Kings captain Dustin Brown summed up the ice conditions at Prudential Center for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals by saying, "It was like playing with a tennis ball."
Luckily for the Kings, the puck didn't bounce away from Anze Kopitar when he delivered a nifty goal in overtime to lift Los Angeles to a 2-1 victory over the hosting New Jersey Devils.
Kopitar's highlight-reel score was a rare instance of beauty in a tightly contested Game 1 that featured a total of 42 shots -- 25 of which were taken by the visiting Kings, who improved their road record this postseason to an amazing 9-0.
Neither goal in regulation was much to look at it, but Kopitar altered that trend with his winning goal. After Kings defenseman Drew Doughty moved the puck up the left-wing boards, Justin Williams backhanded a pass blindly into the neutral zone where Kopitar was all alone to collect the disc and skate in alone on Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur.
Kopitar used some slick stickhandling to switch to his forehand and lift the puck over an outstretched Brodeur. As an example of Kopitar's excellent hockey awareness, the 24-year-old said after the game that he remembered using a backhand against Brodeur in a shootout in his rookie season of 2006-07.
"I guess that goes back a few years when, you know, we were in the shootout in L.A., and I went backhand on him," Kopitar said. "Maybe he thought I was going to do it again. Tonight, I just wanted to mix it up a little bit."
It seemed like a crazy notion that a future Hall of Famer like Brodeur would remember Kopitar's shootout move from nearly six years ago. However, after Game 1, the Devils goaltender said that he "thought (Kopitar) would go backhand." It's still unclear if Brodeur remembered that exact play from Nov. 27, 2006, or if gleaned that information from studying Kopitar's habits in general.
"It feels great. Every time you get the chance to finish it off in OT, you know, to face a world class goaltender like Marty is, it's definitely a good feeling," Kopitar said.
With his game-winning tally at 8:13 of OT, Kopitar tied Brown for the Kings' postseason lead in both goals (seven) and points (16). Yet, despite the similarities in production this spring, Brown has garnered more headlines than Kopitar. That makes sense, considering Brown is a heavy-hitter with a certain brashness to his game on the ice, while Kopitar is a quiet and sublimely steady performer.
One teammate who had high praise for Kopitar's place in the game is fellow forward Mike Richards, who has gained a tremendous amount of respect for the Slovenian over his first year with Los Angeles.
"I'd say (he's) top-two, top-three in the world in skill," Richards told NBC Sports after Game 1. "You don't see him very much because we play a defensive system. But I got the pleasure over the year of watching him in practice and playing with him over the year. I've played against a lot of great players like Sidney Crosby and played with Claude Giroux, but he's got to be up there as one of the best."
Kopitar, who became the first-ever Slovenian to play in the NHL when he debuted for the Kings as a 19-year-old, has been slowly gaining respect around the league, and for good reason. He's never scored less than 61 points in a season and has posted 25 or more goals in five straight seasons after scoring 20 as a rookie.
The fact that Kopitar, who also has developed into one of the league's best defensive forwards, has been able to fly under the radar for this long is a credit to the depth of L.A. When folks talk about the Kings, they usually begin with goaltender Jonathan Quick and then sing the praises of guys like Brown, Richards or defenseman Drew Doughty before Kopitar gets so much as a mention.
While the Kings seem to have become an overnight sensation in these playoffs, the club's success this spring has been a long time coming. Like Kopitar and the numerous other players on this team that were drafted and developed by the organization, the Kings have waited patiently for their moment in the sun and they seem to be enjoying every minute of it.
LIDSTROM RETIREMENT SIGNALS END OF AN ERA
Although the Detroit Red Wings knew this day would come eventually, the club had to hope Nicklas Lidstrom would come back for another year. Alas, that was not to be as the legendary defenseman announced his retirement from the game on Thursday after 20 spectacular seasons.
Lidstrom, who won his seventh Norris Trophy as the league's top defenseman just last season, is an obvious first-ballot Hall of Famer and arguably the best defenseman of his generation. Selected 53rd overall by Detroit in the 1989 draft, the 42-year-old Swede helped his only NHL franchise win four Stanley Cup titles.
"It's one of the most emotional days in Red Wing history," Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch said. "Nick has been a Rock of Gibraltar for us. He has just been a solid winner."
There is no doubt Lidstrom could've been an effective defensemen for Detroit next year and possibly for a few more seasons, but his comments on Thursday left little doubt that he himself is ready to hang up the skates.
"I know what I have to do to get ready for a long year," said Lidstrom, who became the first European-born and trained captain of a Stanley Cup-winning team in 2008. "I'm not willing to sacrifice that to have a good summer or take it easy. I know what I have to do and it's a grind to go through, which all of us do in here. Then you hit the grind of (the) season. It's a long year. You play 3-4 games every week for over six months and that takes its toll on you, too."
Perhaps it's Lidstrom's nickname -- "The Perfect Human" -- that made it seem like he could play forever. But, as Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock made clear on Thursday, it's not like Lidstrom's legacy is in doubt.
"Everyone's going to know who he was long after he's done playing," Babcock said.