VANCOUVER – After years of playing the villain, Matt Cooke relished the chance to be a hero.
Cooke swears he’s trying to shake his label as the most disliked player in the NHL. He’s off to a good start by scoring two goals for the Pittsburgh Penguins, and staying out of the penalty box, in a 4-3 shootout win over the Vancouver Canucks to open the NHL season Thursday night.
“I’m just trying to have the best game I can,” Cooke said after the win. “You just try to roll with what ever comes.
“I feel a sense of joy being out there with my teammates and being able to help them play. Fortunately, tonight I was able to chip in offensively.”
Evgeni Malkin scored the deciding goal in the shootout after the Canucks twice battled back from two-goal deficits.
Malkin waited for Canuck goaltender Roberto Luongo to go down, then lifted a shot over him.
Kris Letang also scored in the shootout for Pittsburgh. Vancouver shooters Mikael Samuelsson and Alex Burrows both missed their chances
Luongo felt he should have stopped Malkin.
“I could have been a little more patient,” said Luongo, who stopped 25 shots but allowed a couple of soft goals.
“I was trying to wait him out but they went backhand both times and over my pad.”
It was a frustrating way for the Stanley Cup finalist Canucks to start the season. Vancouver looked tentative early. Several of the players appeared nervous and fought the puck.
It took almost 40 minutes for Vancouver to show the speed and finesse the team used to win the Presidents’ Trophy last season and advance to the final against the Boston Bruins.
“That’s what happens when you’re not playing your best hockey, you lose games in overtime and shootouts,” said captain Henrik Sedin, who had two assists.
“We were lucky to get back in this one.”
Daniel Sedin tied the game at 7:51 of the third with Pittsburgh being called for a delayed penalty. He fired a hard shot over a diving Penguin defenceman into the short side of the net.
Defenceman Keith Ballard and centre Maxim Lapierre also scored for Vancouver.
Cooke scored on the power play and short-handed. James Neal also scored a power-play goal for Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury kicked one puck into his own net, but looked solid most of the night blocking 33 shots.
The crowd at Rogers Arena was announced as a sellout of 18,860, but there were many empty seats. The building seemed quiet for the first half of the game but the fans began to make noise by the third period.
Canuck coach Alain Vigneault said his team didn’t quit.
“We didn’t get off to the start we wanted at home,” said Vigneault. “For the first 25 minutes of this game they were the best team on the ice.
“Our guys gutted it out, down by two goals against an elite team, and played a real strong third period and overtime.”
Pittsburgh opened the scoring on a shot that deflected off Luongo and into the goal.
Cooke’s short-handed goal made it 3-1 early in the second period. He shot a puck through defenceman Kevin Bieksa’s legs from the top of the face-off circle that grazed Luongo’s blocker and went into the net.
For Canuck fans, seeing Luongo give up a couple bad goals brought back memories of last year’s Stanley Cup final.
Vigneault was quick to defend his goalie.
“Goaltenders are going to give up bad goals sometimes,” he said. “It’s part of the game and you have to play through them.
“He has to play through them and the team has to play through them.”
For much of his career Cooke was known as a cheap-shot artist. He was a master at delivering a dirty blow, then disappearing before anyone could get even.
Last March he was suspended for the final 10 games of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs for an elbow to the head of Ryan McDonagh of the New York Rangers.
With the league cracking down on hits to the head, Cooke said he has learned his lesson. He has watched video and worked with coaches to try and play clean.
One game is a short yardstick, but Cooke feels good about the changes he’s made.
“When you have success early it makes it that much easier to feel good about what you’re doing,” he said.
“If I didn’t score two goals tonight, and the result was the same, I would still feel good about what was happening. It just makes it that much sweeter.”
Cooke played almost seven years in Vancouver, before being traded to Washington in 2008. He signed with Pittsburgh as a free agent for the 2008-09 season.
He admits being traded caused some initial hard feelings.
“I think that time heals,” he said. “It was an emotional time for me, I’m not going to lie.
“I felt like I had played my whole career in Vancouver. I had ingrained myself in the city. A lot of the angst I had toward the organization and the city for the way it ended (is gone). Now I can focus on the good times I had here. The good moments and all the good people that are in this city.”
The Penguins played the game without captain Sidney Crosby who is still suffering from post-concussion symptoms. Crosby is travelling with the Penguins and practised with his teammates in Vancouver Wednesday. He still isn’t sure when he will return.
Notes: GM Mike Gillis says centre Ryan Kesler, who underwent hip surgery during the summer, could be ready to play in five or six games. …It was the first time the Canucks hosted a season-opening game against Pittsburgh. …Canuck captain Henrik Sedin played in his 500th consecutive game. …Prior to the game the Canucks acknowledged representatives from police, firefighters, medical personnel and citizens who helped during the June 15 Stanley Cup riot.