The last time the Vancouver Canucks played a hometown game that counted, they were badly-beaten, 4-0 losers in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals. Their decisive defeat at the hands of the Boston Bruins sparked the worst riot in the city’s history.
Thursday night, with the start of a new season, it was a chance for the Canucks to put the summer’s pain and bad memories behind them and re-launch their quest for the first Stanley Cup in the team’s 41st NHL season.
But despite a strenuous third period by the Canucks, last season’s President Trophy winners, the Pittsburgh Penguins prevailed over Vancouver 4-3 in an overtime shootout.
Pittsburgh’s first two shooters, Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin put the puck past netminder Roberto Luongo, while Marc-Andre Fleury stopped Mikael Samuelsson and Alex Burrows of the Canucks to seal the deal for the Penguins.
Pittsburgh’s victory was spearheaded by a surprising effort from former Canuck Matt Cooke, who scored two goals in his first regular season play since a 10-game suspension levied against him at the end of last season.
Widely derided, even by his own team, for a succession of head shots against opponents over the years, Cooke has been suspended five times for his actions. This summer, however, he vowed to clean up his act and just play the game.
His pair of goals – one on the power play, another shorthanded – helped stake the Penguins to a 3-2 lead after two periods.
It was a shaky night for Luongo, who has weathered significant criticism in recent years for his inconsistent play in the playoffs. He let in one soft goal, another that might have been stopped and continued to have difficulty with shootouts, as both Letang and Malkin drew him out of position before lifting the puck high into the net.
“I’m sure he’d be the first to say he’d like to have two of those goals back,” Canucks coach Alain Vigneault said of Luongo’s play after the game.
“Goaltenders are going to give up bad goals, sometimes. But you have to play through it, he’s got to play through it, and at the end of the day, our guys battled through it, came back, and we ended up with a point against a very good team.”
On a positive note for Vancouver, fresh from successive scoring championships, the Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, were in mid-season form. They dominated play, with linemate Burrows, on many of their shifts, particularly late in the game.
Daniel Sedin tied the score at 3-3 in the third period, following sustained pressure in the Pittsburgh zone, as he rifled the puck over Fleury’s glove hand. Brother Henrik and rearguard Sami Salo earned assists.
Afterwards, Daniel said he thought the team played fairly well, once the game went on.
“Defensively, we gave up a few too many chances, clear-cut chances, which shouldn’t happen, but I thought we battled back hard,” said the 2010-11 scoring champion and most valuable player.
However, the season did get off to a rough start for the Canucks when Luongo let in a weak power play goal just five minutes into the game, with winger James Neal banking the puck in from behind the net.
The Canucks seemed rusty, perhaps reflective of the decision to have veterans play only two pre-season games.
Showing more jump, Pittsburgh upped its lead to 2-0 on a second, first-period power play goal, scored by Cooke on a nifty, quick pass from Pascal Dupuis.
Vancouver’s new fourth line of Maxim Lapierre, Aaron Volpatti and just-arrived Dale Weise was rewarded for some energetic play with the team’s first goal of the season at 16.20. Lapierre scored on a harmless shot that Marc-Andre Fleury knocked over the line with his leg.
In the second period, Cooke scored again, this time with the Penguins playing a man short. Using Kevin Bieksa as a screen, he flared a hard shot past Luongo.
Vancouver narrowed the gap to 3-2 late in the second period on a picture-perfect passing play started by defenseman Keith Ballard in his own zone. Ballard, who had a difficult first season with Vancouver, then finished off a pair of passes by Daniel and Henrik Sedin that sent him into the clear.
Shots on goal were 36-28 for Vancouver, including 15-6 in a strong third period by the Canucks.
Meanwhile, the June 15 riot was not forgotten. Before the game, the Canucks honoured individuals prominent in keeping the city safe that night, and several who helped clean up the morning after.
The team extolled them for demonstrating that they have “the heart of a Canuck”, the club’s new theme.
The ceremonial opening faceoff was performed by Rob MacKay, the first of thousands to scroll a message on the sheets of plywood that replaced broken shop windows after the riot. In large letters, MacKay wrote: “On behalf of our team, and our city, I am sorry.”
Pittsburgh played without superstar Sidney Crosby, still suffering from the concussion he suffered last January. It was Crosby’s first visit to Rogers Arena since he scored the thrilling over-time goal to win gold for Canada’s men’s hockey team at the 2010 Winter Olympics.
But he was not in uniform.