The left side took another hit Wednesday night, then gave a bigger one back.
Kings second-year left wing Kyle Clifford was knocked from Game 1 of the Western Conference quarterfinal against the Canucks after absorbing a violent hit from winger Byron Bitz late in the second period, causing him to slam his head into the glass at Rogers Arena in Vancouver.
The impact also contorted Clifford’s neck as he slid down the wall and tumbled to the ice. He struggled to get back on his skates and regain his balance, looking like a boxer trying to beat a 10 count.
Clifford, 21, was escorted off the ice by the team trainer and wasn’t around to celebrate the 3-2 victory that ripped home ice away from the top-seeded Canucks. The five-minute boarding penalty on Bitz and game misconduct didn’t go unanswered by the Kings either. Willie Mitchell scored on the ensuing power play to give L.A. a 2-1 lead.
When asked about Clifford’s status during a post-game news conference, Kings coach Darryl Sutter dodged the question. As with their protocol, the Kings only referred to it as an upper-body injury. Clifford missed two games late last season after getting knocked down by a hard punch from Ryan Reaves of the St. Louis Blues. If it’s his second head injury in a little more than a year, Clifford could miss some time.
Clifford’s numbers are modest, but most of his contributions don’t make it onto a scoresheet. He had just five goals and seven assists in 81 regular-season games this season, but it's his physical style of play that makes him a perfect fit on the fourth line. He played the best hockey of his career during last season’s playoffs, totaling three goals and two assists in a six-game loss to the San Jose Sharks.
If Clifford is unable to play Friday in Game 2, Sutter would have an interesting decision as far as his replacement. Does he go with rugged 6-foot-5, 240-pound enforcer Kevin Westgarth, who has been a healthy scratch the last 25 games, or the shifty 5-10, 180-pound rookie Andrei Loktionov, who hasn’t played in an NHL game since Feb. 22?
Loktionov was called up from the AHL earlier in the week as an emergency replacement for Brad Richardson, another part-timer who underwent an appendectomy Monday night and is out indefinitely. Loktionov offers better speed, skating and offensive skill than Westgarth, but the way the Canucks threw their bodies around in Game 1, a heavier presence might be needed.
The Kings have already lost one natural left wing, Simon Gagne, to a concussion late in December. Before the injury, Gagne was on pace to put up approximately 20 goals and 30 assists.
And then there’s Dustin Penner, who has twice been on injured reserve this season (and missed another game because of his famed pancake incident), which may help explain why he’s had the least productive season of his career.
Penner did come through the winning goal Wednesday night against the Canucks, proving when one left wing goes down, another can pick him up. Penner might need to perform a lot of heavy lifting in this series.