Pittsburgh didn't have Sidney Crosby for its season-opener in Vancouver. But the Penguins did have Matt Cooke for the first time since last March -- and this time, he made his impact on the scoreboard.
Cooke, who hadn't played since earning a season-ending suspension on March 20, scored twice and Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin connected in the shootout as the Crosby-less Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Vancouver Canucks 4-3 on Thursday night.
For the first two periods, the player with the biggest impact was Cooke, who hadn't scored since last March 15, five days before he was suspended for the rest of the season and the playoffs for an elbow against Ryan McDonagh of the New York Rangers. Cooke scored a power-play goal in the first period and a shorthanded goal early in the second to give the Penguins a 3-1 lead.
To say he was glad to be back on the ice would be an understatement.
"I had unbelievable support not only from my family but from my teammates and the organization," he said. "It was a tough time for me. It was hard for me to watch my team battle in the playoffs without me. I feel like I owe them."
Cooke also said he's learned some valuable lessons.
"Right now I'm good with where I'm at," he said. "I'm good with how my approach to the game is. I'm prepared to help my teammates."
The Canucks, who looked listless for most of the first 40 minutes, got a spark from a goal by Keith Ballard late in the second period. Daniel Sedin then tied it at 7:51 of the third period during a delayed penalty, getting Marc-Andre Fleury to go down before zipping a wrister from the slot just under the crossbar.
Vancouver dominated the rest of the period and the overtime but couldn't score against Fleury, who made 33 saves through 65 minutes. Fleury, one of the NHL's best in shootouts, denied both Mikael Samuelsson and Alexandre Burrows in the tiebreaker, while Letang easily beat Roberto Luongo with a backhand deke and Malkin faked Luongo to the ice before ending the game with a high wrister into a wide-open net.
"His glove was great. Real strong down the stretch there,” Bylsma said of Fleury, now 27-15 all-time in shootouts. “There were a few chances they got in behind him there that could have gone in, but he was extremely strong in the shootout too. He showed what kind of goalie he could be there. At the end, he made enough quality saves -- some great saves -- to give us a chance and get us the win.”
Pittsburgh is beginning its season in Western Canada -- and without Crosby, who's with the Penguins but not playing as he recovers from the concussion he sustained last January.
Meanwhile, in their first appearance at Rogers Arena since dropping Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final to Boston in their own building last June, the Canucks were not sharp in the early going.
"You always want to get off to a good start in your opening game," forward Marco Sturm said. "For some reason, we were flat."
Pittsburgh got on the board early by converting its first power play, a goal that Luongo would like to have back. With Kevin Bieksa in the box, James Neal controlled the puck to the left of Luongo and threw it through the crease, where it hit him and slid into the net at 5:04. The goal matched Neal's total in the 20 games he played with Pittsburgh after being acquired from Dallas late in the season.
The Penguins made it two goals on as many power plays at 12:30, eight seconds before Jannik Hansen's elbowing penalty would have expired. Pascal Dupuis took a carom off the end boards behind Luongo and backhanded a blind pass in front, where Cooke slammed it through the goaltender's pads.
"It was definitely fast for the first game of the season,'' Cooke said. "They have a great squad. I know the expectations for their team is to be there (Stanley Cup final) in the end, and that's similar to us. It was two good teams going at it at a pretty high pace."
The Canucks paid a price for their slow start.
"We didn't get off to the kind of start we wanted to," coach Alain Vigneault said. "But I think you have to give credit where credit is due -- they came out and played real strong. They played fast. For the first 25 minutes, they were the better team."
The Canucks, who gave their top guns minimal work during the preseason, had little going offensively until a misplay by Fleury got them back in the game. Maxim Lapierre controlled the puck below the goal line to the left of the net and threw the puck at Fleury. It hit his stick and popped into the crease, where the goaltender accidentally kicked it into the net at 16:20.
Fleury atoned for his gaffe with just over two minutes left in the period when he robbed Daniel Sedin with his glove from just to the left of the crease after Sedin came out from behind the net. A video review upheld the call that the puck, in Fleury's glove, didn't completely cross the goal line.
The Canucks got their first power play 1:34 into the second period when Malkin was called for elbowing, but wound up two goals down when Cooke raced down the right side, used Bieksa as a screen and snapped a shot that caught the far corner past Luongo.
"I'm sure Lu would be the first to tell you that he'd like two of those goals back," Vigneault said. "Goaltenders are going to give up bad goals sometimes. It's part of the game and he's got to play through it and the team has to play through it. Their goaltender gave up a bad goal tonight -- it's going to happen."
Vancouver made it a one-goal game again late in the period on a play started and finished by Keith Ballard. The veteran defenseman began a breakout with a pass to Daniel Sedin. He fed twin brother Henrik, who crossed the Pittsburgh blue line and zipped a pass between two defensemen to Ballard, who had raced up the left side to join the play. Ballard took the pass and fired in the same motion, beating Fleury cleanly at 17:47 and rousing a sellout crowd that hadn't had much to cheer about.
"I moved the puck up to the blue line, and when I got there, I just kept going," Ballard said.
Fleury faced the tougher chances after Sedin's tying goal and made a pair of excellent stops in the final two minutes to get the game into overtime, including one on a deflection by Henrik Sedin with 50 seconds left.
"Our guys gutted it out," Vigneault said. "We were down by two goals and we were able to come back. We played a real strong third period and had a real strong overtime. Their goaltender made some real good saves and we lost in a shootout."
Material from team media was used in this report