The Kings may have escaped with a 2-1 victory on Thursday night against the Florida Panthers, but the price may have been higher than they would have liked for two points in the standings. Top-four defenseman Willie Mitchell was only able to play a single shift in the first period before he left the game with an undisclosed “lower body injury.” The Kings were forced to play the majority of the game with only five defensemen as they clung to their one-goal lead in the third period.
Mitchell wasn’t the only player missing in the hard fought third period either. Near the end of the middle frame, Panthers forward Sean Bergenheim hit Kings center Mike Richards with a hard check along the boards. Richards looked to be dazed before he and Jarret Stoll started to follow Bergenheim around the rink for the remainder of the shift. Bergenheim wanted to part of the rough stuff, but connected with Richards face as the Kings newcomer continually tried to engage him in a fight. Whether it was the initial hit or the shot afterwards, Richards was unable to return to the game in the third period with what the Kings are calling an “upper body injury.”
Bergenheim’s hit on Richards was certainly walking the line of legality. Replays showed that Richards lowered his head position a bit immediately preceding the hit; even though Bergenheim’s hit was going to be a high shot regardless. But if it weren’t for the momentary stumble, the Panthers’ forward probably would have delievered a shoulder-on-shoulder hit. As it was, his shoulder connected with Richards head. Was the hit worthy of a penalty? Maybe, maybe not. Was it worth a suspension? Probably not. But either way, it was close enough for there to be a discussion.
The Kings continued confronting Bergenheim once the third period started, but he had no interest. Bergenheim joked about the reaction after the game: “It was almost like having the dirtiest hit on Wayne Gretzky. Keep your head up. He’s a physical player himself and has done some farily dirty stuff. Actually the Booth hit under today’s standard would probably be a pretty long suspension. It was a perfect hit right in the chest.’’
In the other locker room, the comments were much more measured. When asked about the hit, Kings head coach Terry Murray was sure to choose his words wisely: “Well, the player got called for a penalty on the play. So…”
So what does that mean? That means that Richards was knocked out of the game—a game where the Kings were already down a man. Both players are being evaluated and there will be updates on their condition tomorrow.
Needless to say, a long-term injury to either player would be quite a blow to a team trying to find some consistency after twenty games.