When the Calgary Flames look across the ice Saturday at the Vancouver Canucks, they’ll see the usual faces – Ryan Kesler, Kevin Bieksa, the Sedins, Henrik and Daniel.
But the large guy playing on Vancouver’s top line, he’ll be new. In fact, tonight’s game at the Scotiabank Saddledome will be just the third this NHL season for big Byron Bitz, the 6-foot-5, 215-pound winger whose recent career has been hobbled by hip injuries, groin injuries and enough surgeries to wipe out an entire hockey year (2010-11).
And now here he is revelling in the moment, with a goal and two assists in three outings while playing alongside two of the most skilled players in the game. Does it get any better than this? Bitz doesn’t think so.
“I’m committed to them,” Bitz said of the Canucks, “and they’ve stuck with me.”
Bitz was called up and inserted into the lineup a week ago as a replacement for injured forward Chris Higgins. He played against the Colorado Avalanche, was bumped up to the first line against the Nashville Predators then stayed with the Sedins in Thursday’s three-goal win over the Minnesota Wild.
What Bitz is doing is anything that’s required, which has earned him the praise of coach Alain Vigneault, who moved Alex Burrows out to make room for the burly Bitz.
“For three games he’s found different ways to contribute, be it with physicality, by protecting the puck or saucering a pass,” Vigneault said of Bitz. “Everyone knows [the Sedins]have had tremendous success with Alex Burrows. Sometimes you need a little change. The twins will be the first to tell you they weren’t at the top of their game.”
Bitz’s game plummeted hard when he suffered a strained groin in September of 2010 while with the Florida Panthers. He later had surgery for a sports hernia only to experience complications in his groin and labrum. Two more surgeries and a lost season followed. Unwanted by Florida, the Saskatoon-born Bitz signed a two-way deal with the Canucks.
“From where I am now, looking back a year ago, it’s amazing,” said Bitz, who was originally drafted by the Boston Bruins. Asked what he was doing when the Bruins played Vancouver in last year’s Stanley Cup final, Bitz replied: “I was sitting in a chair with my crutches watching it on TV.”
For the Flames, seeing the Canucks with another top-end forward is not good, not with where Calgary ranks in the Western Conference. Although two points shy of a playoff spot, the Flames are fighting with four other teams and are on pace to register fewer than 90 points, a total that likely won’t get the job done.
The team’s recent three-game road swing through the Pacific Division was a prime example of the math not working in Calgary’s favour.
“You’re trying to get over that hump,” said Flames’ coach Brent Sutter “You look at the two points we didn’t get on this trip when we had four chances to get a win in a shootout in Anaheim and don’t get it done. [Against Phoenix] you’re right there to get two points and you take a penalty in overtime [by Mikael Backlund and lose 2-1]
“We closed the gap [to eighth place]since the trip started,” Sutter added, “but you’ve got to find a way to get over that line because the games dwindle down pretty quickly.”
Losing Thursday in Phoenix stung Calgary because last season its inability to beat the Coyotes was a key reason why the Flames missed the playoffs. They’ve also had many a struggle with the Canucks, who head into the ’Dome with an NHL-best 19 road wins.
Already this season, Vancouver has beaten Calgary two out of three times.
“We really get up for them,” Henrik Sedin said of the Flames. “They’re divisional games and they’re a hard-working team.”
“I could write [Calgary’s]lines down on the board right now,” Bieksa added. “It doesn’t matter if it’s November, January or April. These two teams are very familiar with each other.”
Except for that big guy playing next to Sedin and Sedin. No. 34. He’ll be the one skating hard, making up for lost time.