PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Matt Cooke is no Sidney Crosby.
At the moment, the Pittsburgh Penguins are hardly complaining.
The noted instigator scored his team-leading third goal of the season in a 4-2 win over the Florida Panthers on Tuesday night. Not bad for a player who has made more headlines for his suspension-inducing hits than his soft hands, though Cooke just laughed when told he is on pace for 61 goals.
“I’ve learned in the past that these things are streaky,” Cooke said. “When you’re playing with confidence and you feel good, you get your head up and you make some plays.”
Pascal Dupuis, James Neal and Richard Park also scored the Penguins, who are off to their best start in 17 seasons despite playing without Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who missed his second straight game with what coach Dan Bylsma called “soreness.”
At the moment, the Penguins don’t need their superstars.
Pittsburgh improved to 3-0-1 in the season’s opening week, the franchise’s best start since going unbeaten in its first 13 games in 1994-95.
The Penguins are doing it with contributions from unlikely places. Second-year centre Joe Vitale had a pair of assists—double his career total—and Park scored his first goal for Pittsburgh in nearly 16 years.
“In a game that wasn’t perfect, and we were a little sloppy at times, we got some big plays from people on the third and fourth lines … that really put us over the edge,” Bylsma said.
The Penguins will take it while Crosby continues his slow recovery from concussion symptoms. He went through a rigorous skate on Tuesday but remains uncertain when he will be cleared for contact.
“Closer than I was yesterday, but I can’t give you a date,” Crosby said. “I’d love for them to tell me a date I can come back and play, but it’s the same.”
Dressed in a black suit with a purple-and-black tie, Crosby received a rousing ovation when he was the last player introduced during a lengthy pre-game ceremony. Malkin was a somewhat close second, though the Russian, like Crosby also wore a suit instead of a black jersey.
The Penguins aren’t flashy without their two most dynamic players, but have shown a knack for generating offence anyway.
Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 32 shots for the Penguins, who never trailed in their home opener.
Marcel Goc and Tomas Fleischmann scored for the Panthers, who failed to start the season with consecutive victories for the first time since 2005. Jose Theodore had 25 saves.
Pittsburgh beat Florida for the fifth straight time behind the kind of disciplined, steady play that has become the Penguins’ identity without Crosby.
“They play together as a team,” Florida defenceman Brian Campbell said. “I think tonight in spurts we played together as a team, and a lot of the times in the game we didn’t play as a team. They make every little play count.”
The Panthers were looking for their first 2-0 start in six years but never led despite dominating play for stretches.
“I thought we could come in here and be the more energetic team and I thought we were at times,” coach Kevin Dineen said. “I thought that was really inconsistent. We had our moments but overall we have to have more consistency to our game.”
It’s the kind of consistency Cooke is searching for, too. He has promised to change his ways after last season ended with a suspension for a hit on New York Rangers defenceman Ryan McDonagh.
The transformation seems to be ahead of schedule. He started the season with a pair of goals in the season opener against Vancouver and netted his third on a fantastic backhand feed from Vitale to give Pittsburgh a 2-0 lead.
“I shot the puck maybe six inches,” Cooke said.
Park’s goal travelled considerably farther, clanging off the right post then smacking into Panthers defenceman Dmitry Kulikov’s thigh and past Theodore. The short-handed score gave the Penguins a 3-1 edge and it was Park’s first for Pittsburgh since Dec. 28, 1995.
“I’m just enjoying the journey right now,” said Park, signed in the pre-season.
The Panthers pulled within 3-2 on Fleischmann’s first of the season but the Penguins answered when Neal tapped in a pass from Jordan Staal. Neal has two goals in four games, double the total he managed in 20 games last season after being traded to Pittsburgh from Dallas.
The revamped Panthers beat the Islanders 2-0 on Saturday in Dineen’s debut. The franchise is in the midst of a massive roster overhaul, and the new-look unit showed flashes during a rare national television appearance.
It wasn’t enough, however, as Theodore lost to the Penguins for the fifth time in 26 regular-season starts.
“You look at pretty much all their goals, it was similar plays,” Theodore said. “It’s around the net, it’s rebounds, so they were at the right spot and they were driving hard.”
NOTES: The Penguins host Washington on Thursday. The teams will join in on a fundraiser for the families of the 28 Lokomotiv Yaroslavl players who died when their plane went down in Russia last month. Both teams will wear commemorative patches on their jerseys, which will then be sold at auction through nhl.com. … The Panthers are off until Saturday when they face Tampa Bay in their home opener.