“He was telling me before game, he plays, like, PlayStation against them,” Vasily Podkolzin, Kuzmenko’s Russian teammate, explained after the Canucks’ impressive 5-1 win at Rogers Arena. “You play (against), like Crosby and Malkin. They are great players.”
“Legends,” Kuzmenko chimed in.
Which is why the 26-year-old, who barely celebrated his previous two goals in the National Hockey League, let out a primal scream and launched himself joyously into the glass after tipping in Luke Schenn’s point shot at 10:28 of the third period, extending Vancouver’s lead to 3-1 in easily the Canucks’ best game in what has been a pretty awful month.
“Emotions,” Kuzmenko said in English. “Pittsburgh is very good team. Crosby.”
In the span of 27 hours, the Canucks followed their biggest win of the season, which ended a seven-game winless streak, with their best one. There have been only the two.
But where they needed some bounces and a lot of saves to hang on Thursday to beat the Seattle Kraken 5-4, they were excellent from the start against the rested Penguins, and resilient in the final period – the period of so much sorrow for the Canucks, who blew leads in six of their first seven games.
They’ll need much more than two good days at the end of October to escape the pit they dug for themselves, but they suddenly look a much different team.
“I think you guys can probably feel it in the room, just when you walk in here,” captain Bo Horvat said of the transformation. “Obviously, there’s a lot more energy, smiles on our faces. But I mean, we’ve got to dig ourselves out of a hole here. Just because we won two games, you can’t be satisfied. We’ve got to keep going here.”
Coach Bruce Boudreau said: “It’s two games. But I mean, you could tell it was like the weight of the world was lifted off our shoulders. Every other third period has been like, ‘Oh-oh, what’s going to happen that’s negative?’ Once we got through the first three minutes (tonight), it was like, ‘OK, let’s go.’ And everybody just played. I think confidence is an amazing thing. When you don’t have it, it kills you. When you have it, it’s really good. And it looks like we’re gaining a little bit right now. We’re not out of the woods … but, I mean, we’re better than we were a week ago.”
The Canucks outscored the Penguins 3-0 in the third period. Until the Seattle game, Vancouver had been outscored 17-2 after the second intermission.
The 2-5-2 team does not play again until Tuesday against the New Jersey Devils. Nothing the Canucks experience on Halloween weekend will be as disturbing as their franchise-record losing streak to start the season.
But their systems play and defending actually looked tight and quick against the Penguins. Their special teams were good for a second straight night, going two-for-four on the power play and holding the Penguins to a single power-play goal by Rickard Rakell late in the second period amid a stretch of three straight Canuck penalties.
J.T. Miller scored into an empty net to continue his momentum after an atrocious start to the season, and Canuck centres Horvat and Elias Pettersson were outstanding playing head-to-head against Crosby and Malkin as Boudreau went with hard matchups.
Ilya Mikheyev, who scored his first two Canuck goals in Seattle, helped set up a pair on Friday, including Tanner Pearson’s power-play tap-in that opened scoring at 13:52 of the first period.
Horvat fooled Pittsburgh goalie Tristan Jarry with a short-side wrist shot that made it 2-0 32 seconds into the middle period, and appeared to score again in the third on a deflection although the official scorer credited the goal to defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
“I think that was probably as complete a game, as far as systems, as far as work ethic, as far playing for each other … that was just a good, gutsy effort, especially on the back-to-back,” Vancouver defenceman Kyle Burroughs said. “It’s awesome to see. You look at what our team can do when we play and when we bring everything to the table. We’ve got to bring that effort every night. It’s only going to get better from here.”
The Canucks won despite superstar defenceman Quinn Hughes missing his fourth straight game with an undisclosed injury. Defencemen Travis Dermott, Tucker Poolman and Riley Stillman are also out indefinitely, which is why there was some urgency for general manager Patrik Allvin to finally close Friday’s trade with the Carolina Hurricanes for defenceman Ethan Bear after discussions that began last summer.
Bear was expected to arrive in Vancouver on Saturday. And if he’s close to game shape, despite not playing once for Carolina this season, he could be in the lineup on Tuesday. So too should be depth forward Jack Studnicka, acquired by Allvin on Thursday from the Boston Bruins.
It will be a different Canucks team on Tuesday. But even without the newest players, it’s a different team than it was a few days ago. Boudreau waited six months for his 600th NHL win as a head coach. The wait for No. 601 was only 24 hours.