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VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- During training camp, Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma admitted he really had no idea what to expect from Matt Cooke this season.
Banished for the final 10 regular-season games and the first round of the playoffs for the latest in a long line of dangerous and/or borderline hits, Cooke spent his time away from the game pondering how he could still be an effective player without crossing the proverbial line.
But perhaps the better question as Thursday's season opener against the Vancouver Canucks approached wasn't how Cooke was going to adapt, but whether he could at all.
Well, one game into the 2011-12 regular season, Cooke is on pace for 184 goals and the Pens are looking to go 82-0 after they upended last season's Western Conference champions and Presidents' Trophy winners 4-3 in a shootout.
And while Cooke might have been the focal point of the victory, is it not true that all season-opening games represent the first findings of the science experiment known as training camp?
Whether it was Philadelphia sneaking by the Stanley Cup champs in Boston by a 2-1 count behind solid netminding from new franchise goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov or Toronto blanking Montreal 2-0 with James Reimer providing the heroics in goal, these initial contests will give us the first tangible answers.
In Vancouver, fans were treated to a season opener that bore a closer resemblance to a playoff tilt as the game wore on, given the tempo of the game and the skill on display on both sides of the ice.
"It was definitely faster than a first game of the season, I'll say that," Cooke, a former Canuck, said after. "They have a great squad. I know that their expectations for their team [are] to be there in the end, and that's similar to us. Those were two good teams going at it at a pretty good pace."
|Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury made 33 saves in Thursday night's season opener.|
We jest, of course, about Cooke's potential to keep up his torrid scoring exploits and the Pens running the table. But on a night when the Penguins and Canucks were looking to start creating some distance between themselves and disappointing finishes to last season, both teams had to be more than a little pleased at what they saw.
Last season, the Penguins blew a 3-1 series lead in the first round against Tampa Bay as their power play went dry without Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Cooke. On Thursday, James Neal scored on the power play to give the Pens a 1-0 lead, one of two power-play goals for them on the evening. That goal equaled the number of goals the big winger scored in 20 regular-season games after being acquired from Dallas at the trade deadline last season.
Playing with a rejuvenated Malkin and free-agent acquisition Steve Sullivan, the trio had a number of terrific opportunities.
"I thought he was really patient with the puck in the offensive zone," Bylsma said. "He really showed he's a big power guy and handled the puck down low. That line in particular was very dangerous in the offensive zone."
Cooke added the second power-play goal, and while his teammates could be seen ribbing him on the bench afterward, his presence on the ice and not in the press box is important.
"It's weird how things work and weird how the world works sometimes," Cooke said. "When you go through tough times and you're in a situation, that's desperation. It's one of those things that when you have success early, it makes it that much easier to feel good about what you're doing. If I didn't score two goals tonight and the result was the same, I'd still feel good about what was happening. But it just makes it that much sweeter."
The Pens also killed off three Vancouver power plays and continued their strong short-handed play. They led the league in penalty-killing efficiency last season, and Cooke, who generally kills penalties on the first unit with center Jordan Staal, is a big part of that group.
Although he allowed a stinker to Max Lapierre from behind the goal line, Penguins netminder Marc-Andre Fleury was solid Thursday, stopping 33 of 36 shots and denying the Canucks on two shootout attempts. Fleury got off to a rocky start last season but was the team's best player during the second half.
As for the Canucks, Game 1 of the regular season, regardless of the outcome, wasn't going to erase the sting of their desultory loss to the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals after leading the series 2-0 and 3-2. Still, the Canucks got better as Thursday's contest went along and erased a 3-1 deficit to earn a point in the standings. Daniel and Henrik Sedin were terrific, as they combined for a goal and three assists.
Still, Thursday's effort won't do much to silence the critics of netminder Roberto Luongo. He allowed Neal to score from behind the goal line as the shot caromed off his right pad and into the net.
"Went off my stick and my leg," Luongo said. "Obviously, not the goal you want to be giving up early in a game."
Then he was beaten from long range by a terrific Cooke wrist shot in the second period while the Canucks were on the power play.
"I didn't see it off the stick right away," he said. "But there's no way the guy should score from there. I've got to make that save. I've got to do a better job, as far as those goals are concerned."
Luongo, of course, will be the bellwether all season for Canucks fans. On the nights he's on, and there will be many, Luongo will restore the faith that this is a Cup-worthy team. On the nights he's off, and Thursday probably would count as one of those, it will remind fans of Luongo's frequent trips sideways through the playoffs this past spring and his especially miserable performance in the latter stages of the Cup finals.
Still, his willingness to take ownership of his play Thursday, as opposed to his curious offerings during the Cup finals, when he suggested he wasn't getting enough praise from counterpart Tim Thomas, is a positive sign.
The first game of the regular season is always imbued with far too much importance. That's the nature of sport after the build-up to the start of a new season with so much unknown and so much anticipation.
"It's really nice [to finally start playing]," Vancouver defenseman Dan Hamhuis said. "There has been so much talk, concern and worry about our team. It's nice to start playing, put an end to last year and focus on this year."
It wouldn't be a great shock if we ended up watching the Penguins and Canucks in the Stanley Cup finals.
But the only thing that is certain after Game 1 of this season is there is an awfully long road ahead of both these teams, but they are happy to be on it.