Midway through the second period on Wednesday, the Vancouver Canucks - Los Angeles Kings game tied at one, a puck whipped around behind the L.A. net and into the corner. Canucks defenceman Chris Tanev pinched on the Kings forward Kyle Clifford. Then, from the side, from behind, came a flying Canuck, forward Byron Bitz, crashing into Clifford, Bitz’s shoulder coming in high, Clifford’s head slamming against the glass, his body falling to the ground.
Bitz got a major, five minutes for boarding, and a game misconduct. Clifford left the game, looking woozy, downed by an undisclosed “upper body” injury. The Kings scored on the power play, en route to a 4-2 upset win in Game 1 of the first-round series.
On Thursday, Bitz received a two-game suspensions for the hit.
The decision by Brendan Shanahan, the National Hockey League’s head of the Department of Player Safety, came after a soft ruling earlier on Thursday, when he decided to only fine Nashville’s Shea Weber $2,500. On Wednesday night, Weber pulled a wrestling-like move on Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg, grabbing Zetterberg’s head and ramming it into the glass.
After a practice in Vancouver Thursday morning, Bitz was contrite, disavowing any vicious intent.
“By the time I had committed to the hit, he [Clifford]had kind of turned a little bit, and went into the glass,” Bitz said.
“I had no intention of targeting the head, or injuring anybody. That’s not the way I play. You know, it was an unfortunate play. The referees made the call, and it cost our team a goal. So, it’s my fault.”
Bitz, a 27-year-old from Saskatoon, is 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds. He was signed by the Canucks as a free agent last summer to add toughness to the squad. He has played in about 100 NHL games and played 10 for the Canucks this season, eight of them in February. He spent most of the year with the Chicago Wolves in the minor leagues, playing 24 games, and was called up earlier in April to once again add a toughness option for Canucks’ coaches in the playoffs.
Bitz, for the Canucks, is in competition for ice time with 23-year-old Dale Weise, who is 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, claimed by the team off waivers two days before this season started.
On the L.A. side, Clifford is a 21-year-old forward from Ayr, Ont., in his second NHL season. He too is a tough guy: he is 6-foot-2, 208 pounds, had 12 points in 82 games, and 123 penalty minutes.
In the Zetterberg case, it is once again a blaring example of the NHL saying one thing about hits to the head - wagging warning fingers at players - but, in reality, hardly cracking down at all. In March, when Chicago’s Duncan Keith flagrantly delivered a brutal elbow to the head of Vancouver’s Daniel Sedin, Keith got five games. Sedin missed the last nine of the regular season and sat out the Canucks’ Game 1 loss to the Kings.
As of Thursday, there is still no information about when Sedin will return to play, after practising earlier this week. The Canucks had an optional practice on Thursday. Sedin did not appear.
Like the Keith-Sedin situation, the Weber-Zetterberg clash involved two of the NHL’s premier players.
“I didn’t really know what happened when it happened,” Zetterberg said on Thursday. “So it was fun to see it afterwards. In my view, it looks pretty bad. It’s up to the league to review. I heard he got fined. I guess the bar is set.”