VANCOUVER -- Goaltender Roberto Luongo cut through the four-deep crowd gathered around his locker after practice Friday, looked into the glaring row of camera lights and said all the right things.
Meeting the media for the first time since it was announced that he would be on the bench with his team facing elimination in Game 4 of their Western Conference Quarterfinals in Los Angeles on Wednesday night, the former Canucks' captain threw his support behind replacement Cory Schneider and downplayed talk of his future being somewhere other than Vancouver as premature.
"I'm a competitor, you guys all know that, and it's tough," Luongo said of being benched. "But at the same time, this is about the team and I am not going to put myself ahead of the team. We're in this together, we work hard all year to be in this position and right now I am going to do the best I can to be ready if needed, and 100 percent behind Cory and my teammates."
Luongo never veered off script during his five minutes in the spotlight, saying he hadn't paid any attention to talk the Canucks may need to deal the decade remaining on a 12-year, $64 million contract, which includes a no-trade clause. His insisted his focus is not on the list of teams some are suggesting he could go to, but on a Kings team that Vancouver trails 3-1 in the best-of-seven series.
"Right now is not the time to be thinking of that stuff," said Luongo, who played well the first two games, but has watched Schneider stop 62 of 64 shots since starting Game 3.
Luongo, who holds the Canucks franchise record for wins and shutouts, was focused only on getting ready for Game 5 on Sunday. He said he was preparing just in case something should happen to Schneider - the second-year goaltender was forced out of a surprise first-round playoff start last spring after cramping up on a penalty shot -- but not wishing any harm to his crease counterpart.
"We're good friends," Luongo said of Schneider. "He's been behind me 100 percent since Day One he's been here. He works extremely hard in practice, he's always been a great team guy, so I'm going to do the same for him. … I think he deserves what he's getting. Obviously he's going to be a top-notch goalie in this league for a long time. I'm happy for him, and hopefully we can get the job done here."
As for how Luongo is handling the situation, teammates praised him for keeping it out of the locker room. For a goalie once accused of throwing them under the bus by talking about poor defensive play, and a guy who admittedly regrets some comments about Boston's Tim Thomas during last year's Stanley Cup Final, it's a big step.
"Six years ago or five minutes ago?" Luongo responded with a laugh when asked if he has developed thicker skin during his time in Vancouver. "You get to handle things. I think I am much better at it now than when I got here, and I think it's nice that I have been able to take that step and negotiate those things without letting it affect me."
Vancouver engaged in a lot of post-whistle activity in the series opener on Wednesday night, spending so much time trying to get the Kings off their game that it took away from theirs instead. It was uncharacteristic of a team that preached discipline and a whistle-to-whistle focus all season -- and looked more like the one that lost track of both en route to a loss in the Stanley Cup Final against Boston last year.
"We need to stay away from it," Ryan Kesler said. "We haven't been doing it as much all year and with the excitement of playoffs we got caught up a little too much in it. We need to stick to our game plan, which is whistle to whistle."
Kesler was in the middle of a lot of it with Game 1 hero Mike Richards, who had a goal and two assists in the 4-2 win. While Kesler's two assists represented his first multi-point game since Dec. 26, the focus after was more on his post-whistle antics, the snow shower on Kings goalie Jonathan Quick that started a run of three straight penalties, and a couple of apparent embellishments.
Coach Alain Vigneault hinted while talking with reporters on Thursday that it would be discussed before Game 2. It sounded Friday morning like Kesler got the message.
"When the excitement of playoffs is here, and the real season starts you're going to try get any advantage," Kesler said, "But we got caught up in it."
The Canucks also got caught up trying to be a bit too physical, which led to some of the Kings' eight power plays -- and two power-play goals. But Vigneault and Kesler both warned they couldn't back off too much.
"We're going to keep hitting," Kesler said. "We can't play soft. We can't play timid. We'll kill penalties like that. It's the other ones we have to stay away from."
"I guess you get thrown in the fire and see how you do," Ballard said after taking the morning skate on Friday in preparation to play Game 2 against the Kings.
It's a big ask of Ballard, who hasn't played in more than two months since coming out of the lineup Feb. 7. He was shut down completely for several weeks during that time after experiencing dizziness and headaches -- and sometimes sleeping 16 to 18 hours a day. But he's been skating since mid-March, rejoined the team later in the month and feels he's as ready as he can be to return.
"I know it's going to be fast, it's going to be intense and I'm ready for that," Ballard said. "From my perspective I've done everything I could physically and mentally to prepare so I go from there. My legs feel great. My skating feels great. It's just a matter of putting it all together. It's not psyching yourself up, the building and the atmosphere and what's at stake gets you emotionally ready. It's the mental part that is a huge part of hit, getting your mindset right."
Ballard has battled the mental side since coming to the Canucks two summers ago. He never became the top-pair defenseman Vancouver touted when they traded Michael Grabner and a first-round pick to Florida as part of a five-player package to acquire him on the eve of the 2010 NHL Draft. But he remains a great skater, and after struggling to recover from offseason hip surgery and another concussion last season was playing well before getting hurt in February.
Canucks coach Alain Vigneault hopes his ability to skate the puck out his own end pays off against a Kings forecheck that pinned them in the Vancouver zone several times.
"Skate and move the puck, make smart decisions and a bit of a physical side, that's the strength of my game so that's what I gave to do," Ballard said. "If I play to my capabilities, I definitely think I can make a positive impact."
Unfortunately it had less to do with their Game 1 victory in Vancouver the night before, and more to do with a line that went out on the popular social media network afterwards.
Sent from the team's official Twitter account, @LAKings, shortly after the 4-2 win, it read: "To Everyone in Canada outside of BC, you're welcome," a reference to the Canucks perceived status as one of hockey's most hated teams.
The Kings quickly apologized Thursday morning.
"We encourage our digital team to be creative, interactive and to apply a sense of humor whenever possible," Mike Altieri, the Kings vice president of communications and broadcasting, said in a statement. "To anyone who found it offensive, we sincerely apologize."
Vancouver players dismissed it, saying they are used to the wearing the black hat ever since last year's run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final cast them in the villain's role -- even in Canada.
"You laugh about it a bit, but we're used to it," backup goalie Cory Schneider said. "Everyone's kinda doing that stuff to us, so it doesn't really bother us a whole lot. We have bigger, more important things to worry about than what their team is putting on Twitter."
Los Angeles players and coach Darryl Sutter also dismissed it for the most part, stressing that it didn't come from anyone in the locker room.
"It's irrelevant to the guys in the room," captain Dustin Brown said. "As players we're all smart enough to know bulletin board material at this time of the year is not a good idea and as players we all understand that. Maybe someone who is control of the Twitter feed needs to understand that as well."
As for perceptions of the Canucks, Brown said it should be considered a compliment.
"When you've been the best team the last two years, you automatically get the role of the most hated team," Brown said. "I mean you look at other sports, you look at the Yankees who have dominated baseball on and off, they are probably the most hated team in baseball. That goes with the territory of being the best."
VANCOUVER -- Canucks forward Byron Bitz accepted responsibility for the dangerous hit that knocked both him and Los Angeles Kings forward Kyle Clifford out of Game 1 of their Western Conference Quarterfinal series on Wednesday night.
The 6-foot-5 Canucks forward will have more time to think about after Brendan Shanahan, the NHL's Vice President of Player Safety, announced late Thursday that Bitz was suspended for two games for the dangerous hit.
"I don't feel very good about it," Bitz said before a phone hearing with Shanahan.
Clifford had his back to Bitz, who was skating along the goal line before planting his shoulder into the Kings' forward, driving his face hard into the boards. Bitz received a five-minute major for boarding, during which the Kings scored a goal, and a game misconduct. Clifford returned the bench during the ensuing power play but never got back on the ice and didn't return for the third period.
"I had no intention of targeting the head or injuring anybody," said Bitz, who has not been disciplined before. "That's not the way I play. It was an unfortunate play. The referees made the call and it cost our team a goal. It's my fault."
Los Angeles coach Darryl Sutter said Clifford wouldn't play Game 2 on Friday.
"You guys know the old standard, 'upper-body injury,' and he's out," Sutter said.
"I don't want to not tell the truth. I'll just leave it at that"
As for who might take Clifford's place in the lineup with Brad Richardson already out after an appendectomy Monday, Sutter only joked he was, "talking to Bernie Nichols about it, but he doesn't know if he's quite game ready."
The candidates include big wing Kevin Westgarth and smaller center Andrei Loktionov, a top prospect who was sent down to the AHL in February because there was no room behind Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Jarret Stoll and Colin Fraser.
"I have to be ready," Loktionov, a Russian, said in choppy English of possibly playing his first playoff game. "It's so much quickly than in season, everyone try to hit you. I have to keep my head up and keep move my feet. It's different."
The Canucks also have options to replace Bitz, including Dale Weise, who plays a similar physical role, and Andrew Ebbett, an undersized center who can also help on the second unit of a power play that was 0-for-5 in Game 1.
"I'd be kidding if I'd say we don't need the power play," coach Alain Vigneault said. "You need that as a weapon to make sure the other team stays honest on the ice and obviously our power play needs to be better. We have the personnel for it to be good. Right now they need to execute better."
Learn more about the personalities of your favorite NHL players. WATCH NOW ›
It's a little different but it feels amazing. A new chapter in my life and I'm excited. It's been amazing. Better than I expected. The weather is great, the place is just amazing. I can't say enough good things about it. I'm glad to get the season going.