For a team that fell behind by three goals in less than 22 minutes, the Penguins did a good job to rally back and at least put up a fight against the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday night.
But for a team that desperately needed to kick off the final 30 games of the season with a win, putting up a good fight simply wasn’t good enough.
Despite two goals from Alexei Kovalev and the return of Mario Lemieux to the lineup, the Penguins lost, 3-2, in their first game back after the All-Star break.
Goaltender Sebastien Caron made 36 saves to keep the Penguins in the game, but Dan Cloutier, who keyed the Canucks’ early run of success this season, did his part in the other end and the Penguins were unable to pull the trigger on the tying goal. They fell to 21-23-4-5 on the season and lost their third game in a row after dropping two on the road last week.
“The second goal was a turnover and the first two went off our defensemen,” Lemieux said. “Against a good team like that you get down by three, it’s tough to come back.”
The Canucks (30-16-7-0) jumped past St. Louis to take the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference.
Lemieux had an assist in his first full game since Jan. 7 and helped the power play look its best in a month. But Cloutier made save after save with the Penguins on the advantage and they ended 0 for 5 on the night against the sixth-best, penalty-killing team in the league.
“We talked a lot about how much desperation Pittsburgh was going to play with and they certainly didn’t disappoint us,” Canucks coach Marc Crawford said. “I thought we played well. Our penalty kill was excellent. We didn’t break and there are a lot of positive things about that. We did what we wanted to in the third period and their goalie preserved it for them. We could have put the game out of reach had he not made all those great saves at the start of the period.”
The Penguins were outshot 14-6 in the third period.
The Canucks scored two unassisted goals, including one shorthanded, in the first 21:38 of the game. Markus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi each had an assist, but the team’s top scorers were held off the board otherwise.
The Penguins started the second period on a power play, but a turnover by Kovalev at the Vancouver blue line sent Mats Lindgren on a breakaway. He beat Caron to make it 3-0 — the sixth shorthanded goal the Penguins have allowed this year.
“It was still early in the game and we could have gotten one there, but we had another turnover at the wrong place and it cost us,” Lemieux said. “We said this was going to be an important month for us to see if we have a chance to get in there and we have to play a lot better.”
Coach Rick Kehoe broke out the Lemieux-Kovalev-Martin Straka line, which he usually reserves for a third-period maneuver. They went head-to-head against Bertuzzi and Naslund and were rewarded almost immediately. Dick Tarnstrom stretched to keep the puck in the Vancouver end and the play went back behind the net. When Kovalev found an opening at the right hash marks, Straka found him. Kovalev snapped the quick pass over Cloutier’s glove to make it 3-1 and score his 24th goal of the year at 5:57.
He scored his second goal at 9:23 of the third to pull within one, driving the net and getting open again to receive a pass from Straka behind the net. After the game, Kehoe talked about leaving them together for Thursday night’s game against the Florida Panthers.
“Kovalev wasn’t feeling too well tonight, but he also came to play tonight,” Kehoe said. “He had a touch of the flu, but came to play. On that line, when they are out there things happen so we’ll have to leave them together.”
Both Canucks goals went off Penguins defenseman Ian Moran — one from Henrik Sedin standing on the goal line, and the other from Matt Cooke at the point.