Center Mike Richards didn't let his scoring slump carry over into… (Alan Diaz / Los Angeles Times )
VANCOUVER, Canada — The gaps between goals grew longer for Mike Richards than seemed possible for one of the NHL's premier two-way centers, capped by a 26-game famine from mid-January to mid-March.
There's more to his game, but the Kings needed him to fortify what they tried to pass off as an offense. And he knew his struggles meant opponents could key on Anze Kopitar and more easily shut the Kings down.
"You don't want to lose confidence. You start looking at the stat sheet maybe and get frustrated," Richards said.
His performance in the Kings' playoff-opening 4-2 upset of the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday produced a stat sheet worth preserving.
He scored the Kings' first goal on a clever read and sharply angled shot, set up the winner late in the third period by intercepting a clearing pass and relaying it to Jeff Carter for a foot-directed pass to Dustin Penner, and fed Dustin Brown for an empty-net goal in the final seconds. Thanks to him, the Kings took control entering Game 2 on Friday at Rogers Arena.
"I've never lost confidence in myself," he said Thursday. "I always felt that even though I wasn't getting the points or getting the bounces, I was still playing pretty good hockey and knew if I stuck with it, it was going to come."
Canucks Coach Alain Vigneault matched Ryan Kesler, a Selke Trophy winner as the NHL's top defensive forward, against Richards but might switch that Friday. Vigneault said the Canucks need answers for Kopitar's line, for Penner, "who was a powerful force down low in our own end," and for Richards, who played "one of the best games I've seen him play since he's been in L.A. and not just offensively but physically, also."
Richards was flattered. But his ego, unlike his scoring, is in check.
"It was nice to have a game like that, but you're only as good as your last game and it's only one game," he said. "It's time for us to turn the page and look forward to [Friday] night. We did some good things that we can take, but there's also some things we have to improve on."
Clifford out, Canucks' Bitz suspended
Kings winger Kyle Clifford won't play Friday after suffering an apparent head injury when he was slammed into the glass by Vancouver forward Byron Bitz in the second period. Bitz was suspended two games in addition to his five-minute boarding penalty and game misconduct.
NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan said the onus was on Bitz "to avoid this check completely or at the very least minimize its impact."
Before the ruling was announced, Bitz called the play "unfortunate." He added, "By the time I had committed to the hit, he had turned around a little bit and went into the glass. I had no intention of targeting the head or injuring anybody. That's not the way I play. ... The referees made the call and it cost our team a goal. So it's my fault."
Kings Coach Darryl Sutter, who joked that he had asked unofficial assistant coach Bernie Nicholls to step in, is likely to put Andrei Loktionov in Clifford's spot. The Canucks, again expected to be without concussion-stricken forward Daniel Sedin, could dress Andrew Ebbett or Dale Weise.
Tweets and twits
Kings executives were irked by a tweet from the club's @LA Kings Twitter account after the game Wednesday. Playing on anti-Canucks sentiment among fans beyond the province of British Columbia, the tweet said, "To everyone in Canada outside of BC, you're welcome."
Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi called it inappropriate. "In no way did this reflect the opinion of the players, coaches or staff of the L.A. Kings toward an organization and fan base we respect," he said.
Mike Altieri, the club's vice president of communications, offered an apology "to anyone who found this offensive."
Brent Sutter out as Flames' coach
Sutter's brother Brent was fired as coach of the Calgary Flames after missing the playoffs for the third straight season. Darryl Sutter was the Flames' general manager before being dismissed in December 2010.
Darryl backed his brother. "If Brent wants to coach in the National Hockey League, he'll coach in the National Hockey League," Darryl said.
NHL projects record revenue
The league announced its revenue will exceed $3.2 billion by the end of the playoffs, its seventh straight record season. How to split that revenue will be determined in the next collective bargaining agreement. The current deal expires Sept. 15.