Opening night for the NHL saw both Stanley Cup finalists lose, and two of its biggest stars – Sidney Crosby and Ryan Kesler – sitting on the sidelines recovering from injury. Want to know how much we can tell from one game? Well, going by this night’s results, the Toronto Maple Leafs are tied for first overall in the NHL and Matt Cooke is on pace for 164 goals this season. One game doesn’t mean much, but hey, it wouldn’t be any fun if we just waved it off. So here goes… the first Pucked in the Head column of the year: Seven Things about Opening Night.1. The Vancouver Canucks took the unusual step of resting their core players for all but two pre-season games, which resulted in several players having trouble with timing and accuracy. Alexandre Burrows alone had more than a half dozen brilliant scoring chances, including two in his first full game as a part of the first power play unit. Once he gets his sea legs, he’ll put a few of those pucks home and make the Canucks top line that much more dangerous. Still, it was Burrows buzzing around the net that set up Daniel Sedin’s game-tying marker late in the third period.
2. Speaking of sea legs, Evgeni Malkin could have used water wings for most of the night, as he spent as much time on his keyster as he did on his skates. To be fair, the man is recovering from surgery on both his MCL and ACL – most mortal humans would have trouble walking at this point, let alone playing competitive hockey at the highest level. Even still, Gino nearly put home a glorious chance midway through the third period when he was left all alone in the slot on a give and go. Luongo came out to challenge, and number 71 put the biscuit just wide of the left post. Of course, that didn’t stop him from leaving Bobby Lou doing snow angels as he potted the winning goal during the shootout.
3. I’ll give Malkin another break: the ice was nothing short of awful in the first meaningful game of the season. Pucks were bouncing. Players on both sides were losing edges throughout the game. Perhaps worst of all, Ken Dryden’s predictions in The Game look to be coming true: the new paint job on the Rogers Arena ice left very little white ice between the half walls. The Canucks logo at centre ice looks bigger than ever, with a bold set of advertisements taking up the rest of the neutral zone. Massive FACE-OFF logos clogged up three metres of ice inside each blue line. Does anyone happen to have the NHL rulebook handy? Has there been a corporate-minded relaxation of the ads-in-the-ice rules?
4. Henrik Sedin opened the season with two assists, and brother Daniel offered up a goal and a helper of his own. Unfortunately, they sit behind former teammate Matt Cooke, who leads the league in scoring for the first time in his career. The cheapshot artist collected two goals in the Penguin victory, a bang-bang power play goal and a shorthanded wrister using Kevin Bieksa as a screen. When was the last time Cook had more goals than penalty minutes in any league?
5. While the entire Canuck organization wants to make amends for a disappointing game seven of the Stanley Cup final, Keith Ballard has the unfortunate distinction of being the only guy on the roster whose performance underwhelmed from wire to wire during the 2010-11 season. Game one provided a few glimpses of a Ballard that could spend more time on the ice than in Alain Vigneault’s doghouse. The most obvious case in point: with the score 3-1 late in the second period, he gave an outlet pass from behind his own net and got on his horse to join the rush. He swept in behind the Penguin defense, took a Henrik Sedin pass in full flight and buried the puck past Marc-Andre Fleury to make it 3-2 going into the dressing room.
6. Roberto Luongo continues to have problems with shootouts and pucks from sharp angles. The Blackhawks, Predators and Sharks all scored big goals from behind the red line by putting the puck into Luongo’s skates during last year’s playoffs – the trend continued on opening night early in the first period, when new Penguin James Neal banked a power play shot off the goalie’s inside leg from the corner of the rink. Matt Cooke’s second of the night, a shorty from the top of the faceoff circle, looked weak but can be given a pass due to Cooke’s using Kevin Bieksa as a screen. Luongo looked horrible on both shootout goals against, however, as both Chris Letang and Evgeni Malkin had him fishing before dumping pucks unceremoniously over him. Thanks to HBO’s 24/7 series last year, the Penguins are famous for practicing the shootout – Fleury now looks forward to it in game situations. It’s long past time when Luongo and the Canucks adopt this sort of ploy.
7. The Boston Bruins raised their first Stanley Cup banner in 39 years, and (sorry Canucks fans) bad boy Brad Marchand picked up where he left off by scoring the first goal of the 2011-12 NHL season. The Philadelphia Flyers didn’t feel like helping Boston out, however, as they came back to win game one 2-1. Ilya Bryzgalov outplayed Tim Thomas, making 16 saves in the third period alone to get his first win as a Flyer. Pouring buckets past Luongo in their four Cup wins last year aside, it shouldn’t be surprising that the B’s didn’t fill the net this night. Milan Lucic and David Krejci tied for the team lead in scoring last year with 62 points. It was the lowest total for a Cup winning team leader since the lockout-shortened 1995 season ended with a championship for the New Jersey Devils.