VANCOUVER – Byron Bitz’s clean disciplinary record helped his cause, but it didn’t keep him from getting a suspension. The Vancouver Canucks winger received a two-game ban Thursday for a hit to the head on Los Angeles Kings winger Kyle Clifford in the first game of their Western Conference quarter-final Wednesday night.
“Bitz sees Clifford’s back and numbers throughout his approach to this check and has ample time to make a different play,” said NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan in a video describing the incident.
Bitz hit Clifford from behind 12:12 into the second period, putting his shoulder into the Kings forward’s shoulder and head. The hit drove Clifford’s head into the glass.
Bitz was assessed a major penalty and game misconduct for boarding by in-game officials.
Shanahan said in a statement that the NHL took into consideration the fact that Bitz has never been fined or suspended in his three-year career in the league. The decision came down after Bitz participated in a disciplinary review by telephone earlier in the day.
“It was an unfortunate play,” said an apologetic Bitz. “By the time I had committed to the hit, he had turned a little bit and went into the glass.”
The Kings scored near the end of the five-minute power play en route to a 4-2 victory.
Bitz, a 28-year-old Saskatoon native, returned to action in January after missing almost two years due to hip and abdominal injuries that required four surgical procedures. He is now in his second stint with the Canucks, playing centre after move from the wing.
“I had no intention of hurting anybody,” Bitz said. “That’s not the way I play. It was an unfortunate play. The referees made the call, and it cost my team a goal—so it’s my fault.”
Bitz offered an excuse which has been heard often from players who have faced discipinary actions on hits to the head and other infractions.
“I just went to finish my hit,” Bitz said. “And the way I made contact, he hit the glass awkwardly. I had no intent to injure or target the head. I was just trying to finish my hit, and the referees made the call.”
The incident came as Canucks winger Daniel Sedin missed his 10th straight game with a concussion suffered when he was elbowed in the head March 21 by Chicago Blackhawks defenceman Duncan Keith, who received a two-minute penalty. The NHL subsequently handed Keith a five-game suspension for the infraction.
Bitz’s hit also came on the same day Los Angeles Kings defenceman Willie Mitchell praised the NHL for taking a tougher stance on head shots. Although he became an example of the new disciplinary angle, Bitz endorsed it.
“You can’t replace your brain,” he said. “You’ve got to protect the guys’ heads. You don’t want to have guys with concussion problems, and they’re doing the right thing.”
After the hit, Clifford went to the bench for a while, but then went to the dressing room and did not return. Los Angeles coach Darryl Sutter said Clifford will not play when the series resumes Friday in Vancouver.
“You (media) guys know the (situation),” said Sutter, reluctant to reveal the extent of Clifford’s injury. “Upper-body injury, and he’s out. But you guys know that, right? I don’t want to not tell the truth, so I’ll just leave it at that.”
Meanwhile, the Canucks, who finished first in the NHL during the regular season, are looking to reduce their penalty total in Game 2. The Kings, who squeaked into the playoffs by securing the eighth and final berth in the Western Conference, converted two of seven power-play chances.
“The penalties really affected our team,” said Vancouver rookie winger Zack Kassian. “We had a lot of top-end guys killing a lot of penalties, which you don’t want to be doing too much. Obviously, it takes away from their offence.”
Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault said the Canucks must also do a better job on the power play. The Canucks were blanked on five man-advantage opportunities Wednesday.
“We have the personnel for it to be good right now, and we need to execute better,” Vigneault said. “Our best power play (Wednesday) night was the last one that we had (in the third period) when we took Alex Edler off. He needs to take his game up a notch, because obviously he’s been a big part of our defensive group, a big part of our team, and he’s a great player. We need him to play at his level.”
The Canucks are also looking to put in a better overall effort after the Kings controlled the play during most of Game 1.
“Obviously, (Wednesday) night, if it’s not for (goaltender Roberto Luongo), it’s not even close,” Vigneault said. “We’re all aware of that, it’s pretty safe to say, and we need to come up with some answers.”
L.A. captain Dustin Brown also called for his team to display more discipline after the Kings participated in many scrums after the whistle. Los Angeles must also do a better job of pressuring Luongo.
The veteran Canucks goaltender posted 34 saves on Wednesday, including many difficult ones, as he allowed three goals. The Kings scored another one into an empty net while he was pulled in favour of a sixth attacker.
Brown said the Kings did a good job staying close to Vancouver’s top players, but did not create enough traffic in front of the Canucks net.
“He made some good saves, but he also saw a lot of pucks,” said Brown. “If there’s one guy we need to make it harder on, it’s him.”
Notes_Andrew Ebbett and Dale Weise are candidates to replace Bitz. … Sutter is expected to install either Kevin Westgarth or Andrei Loktionov in Clifford’s vacant lineup spot. … For the second straight day, Daniel Sedin did not skate after participating in on-ice workouts earlier in the week. … Both clubs held optional skates.