Anze Kopitar suspected something might be up. In two games at San Jose the Kings had scored two goals and lost twice to the Sharks, dropping into a 2-2 tie in the teams' Western Conference semifinal playoff series. The Kings perfected the art of playing taut, low-scoring games last spring but that scoring pace probably won't get them out of this round.
Kopitar's suspicion was confirmed when he saw his practice jersey wasn't the same color as the jersey given to longtime linemate Dustin Brown. The switch was one of several revised combinations Coach Darryl Sutter auditioned Wednesday, hoping to create offensive sparks in Game 5 on Thursday at Staples Center.
"Sometimes after games like the last two you almost need a little bit of change," Kopitar said, then paused.
"Not that you need it," he said, "but you can kind of see it coming."
Kopitar centered for brawny Kyle Clifford and skillful Justin Williams, and Brown — a right-handed shooter long ago moved to left wing to address the scoring void there — was on the right side with Dwight King and center Trevor Lewis. Dustin Penner was on the left with Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, and the fourth line was Brad Richardson with Colin Fraser and Tyler Toffoli.
Sutter said he wasn't sure he will keep Clifford with Kopitar and Williams, but his intent was clear. The Kings were stirred but they're not shaken.
"Nothing fazes us," said Clifford, who rejoined the lineup Tuesday after sitting out four games because of an upper-body injury. "You can throw anything at us. We'll be calm and cool and collected. It's going to be fun."
These playoffs haven't been a joy ride for Kopitar, Brown and Williams.
Kopitar, who tied Brown for the team playoff scoring lead last season with eight goals and 20 points in 20 games, has a goal and five points in 10 games against St. Louis and San Jose. The goal is the only one Kopitar has scored in 26 games. His power-play assist in the Kings' 2-1 loss Tuesday was his first point against the Sharks. Brown and Williams each have two goals and three points in 10 playoff games.
"As a line they've struggled for two series, if you look at it," Sutter said.
Some of that in this series stems from the effectiveness of San Jose defensemen Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun. But playoff games are often won on sheer will and finding a way past obstacles.
"This time of year your best players have to be your best players and you have to have production from your top lines. That's how it is," Kopitar said. "At the end of the day it doesn't matter how it happens or when it happens as long as you win games."
He acknowledged he and his usual linemates aren't the Kings' best players at the moment.
"No. It's not a secret. We can play a lot better as a line. We have in the past," he said. "The thing is that our expectations within the line are probably higher than anybody else's. That's the part that maybe some people don't realize — that we want to get it done more than anyone else.
"It's a lot of character. We want to lead. Things are not going but we have to battle through it. No time to whine right now. It's do it or not do it, and we have to do it."
On the plus side, Kopitar has gotten better on faceoffs, an area in which the Sharks lead the Kings in the series, 57% to 43%. Kopitar won 28 of 43 draws in the last two games after winning 17 of 39 in the first two, and said he felt better and more involved during the Kings' third-period surge Tuesday.
"Once you get that, the plays are going to start developing and you get chances," he said.
Williams said Kopitar's value goes beyond goals, which is true. Kopitar's two-way play should have made him a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the NHL's top defensive forward. The Kings need that from him, but they need goals as much.
"Kopi's our best player," Williams said. "I think regardless of whether he's on the scoresheet or not he's doing something to help the team. Because he doesn't score, I put a lot of the responsibility on myself as well. It's not as though you're going to pass up a shot to give him one, but recently we all haven't done the necessary things to score goals come playoff time. He's included in that, and a lot of players are."
Too many players. There's the problem.
The solution could be Sutter's new combinations or players' ability to feed off the energy of the crowd at home, where they've won 12 straight games. The Sharks' most talented players have been their best. The Kings must be able to say the same.
"It's pure broken record, is all it is," Williams said. "The scorers got to score. If they don't score, they've got to create more offense.
"We've been outplayed so far, top line to top line, I feel, in this series. And we're a proud bunch and it's 2-2. We're still in a good spot here."