Matt Cooke is trying to use the new NHL season to shed an old reputation. The notorious Pittsburgh Penguins forward is off to a good start.
After finishing last season suspended for the latest indiscretion in a career defined by dangerous hits, Cooke started the new campaign by scoring twice to help lead the Penguins to a 4-3 shootout win over his old team, the Vancouver Canucks, on Thursday night.
For Cooke it was nice to be known for shots that went in the net, rather than cheap shots that knock other players out of the game.
”It s weird how the world works sometimes,” Cooke said.
Cooke’s early scoring wasn’t enough, as the Penguins blew the two-goal lead he helped forge before Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin scored the only goals in the shootout. But even in a season that started with star captain Sidney Crosby still out with a concussion, the story was Cooke, who scored his first on a power play, his second short-handed, and was the game’s second star.
”When you go through tough times and are in a situation where it’s desperate, if you have success early it makes it easy to feel good about what you are doing,” Cooke said.
It felt even better coming in Vancouver, a city he embraced his first nine seasons before souring on the Canucks after being traded away in 2008.
”Time heals,” said Cooke, who refused to speak to the media in his only other return. ”I felt like I played my whole career here and ingrained myself in the city and I wasn t mentally ready (to talk).”
The Canucks, coming off the shortest offseason in franchise history, were the ones that didn’t look ready to start this season. Especially goalie Roberto Luongo, who was beaten 5 minutes in by James Neal’s power-play shot from below the goal line, gave up Cooke’s second on a 40-foot shot, and was faked by a couple of nice dekes by Letang and Malkin in the shootout.
”I gotta stop at least one of those,” Luongo said of the shootout.
He wasn’t offering up any excuses for Neal’s goal, or Cooke’s second, either.
”There s no way a guy should score from there,” Luongo said. ”I have to make that save.”
Marc-Andre Fleury gave up a similarly soft sharp-angle goal late in the first period, but recovered with 33 saves and stopped both in the shootout. He, too, was more interested in talking about Cooke, who has become known for the dangerous hits the NHL is trying to eliminate.
”We’re happy for him,” Fleury said. ”We all know he wants to come back and be with the team.”
Cooke was suspended the final 10 games and first playoff round last year. But after pledging to change his game amid a crackdown on headshots, he opened this year showing off his offensive touch. After a perfect high shot on his first goal, Cooke backed off defenseman Kevin Bieksa and used him as a screen before snapping the long shot past Luongo’s blocker on the far side.
”I can be real clear we didn’t change Matt Cooke into a goal scorer or make that attempt,” coach Dan Bylsma said. ”He’s physical, blocked shots, penalty kill, that is where Matt Cooke is effective. The goals are a bonus.”
Keith Ballard started Vancouver’s rally late in the second period and Daniel Sedin tied the game with 12:09 left. Maxim Lapierre also scored, and Luongo finished with 25 saves for the Canucks, who looked flat early on after losing Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals to Boston in mid-June.
”Our first half wasn’t good enough,” said captain Henrik Sedin, who had two assists. ”Halfway through the game I thought we took over, but this is what happens when you are not playing your best. We were lucky to get back in.
The Penguins begin this season healthier than they ended the last one — even if Crosby watched in a suit and still hasn’t fully recovered from consecutive shots to the head nine months earlier. But Crosby is on the three-game trip through Western Canada, practicing hard, and hoping to be cleared soon for contact to join Malkin and Jordan Staal coming off serious injuries last season. Staal missed the final eight minutes Thursday, but Bylsma said it was just dehydration.
With a few notable exceptions, the Canucks looked a lot like the team that lost the Stanley Cup in the same rink 112 days earlier, touching off a riot in downtown Vancouver. Selke Trophy winning center Ryan Kesler remains out after offseason hip surgery, but could be back within six games.
NOTES: Canucks C Henrik Sedin also had two assists. … Vancouver RW Dale Weise, claimed off waivers from Rangers Tuesday, started on the fourth line in place of Victor Oreskovich, who was waived and sent to the AHL. … In a pregame ceremony, the Canucks honored a handful of first responders, including firefighters, medical workers and citizens that helped others during the Stanley Cup riot. … Penguins free agent addition Steve Sullivan started on the top line with Neal and Malkin, who is coming off major knee surgery. Sullivan was also manning the point on the first power-play unit.