Rabu, 12 Oktober 2011

Cooke making most of clean slate

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Pittsburgh Penguins' Matt Cooke(notes) (24) works the puck in front of Florida Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell(notes) (51) during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Florida Panthers in Pittsburgh Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011. (AP)

The three stars Tuesday night, at least based on the crowd reaction to the player introductions before the Penguins opened Year 2 of Consol Energy Center, were Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Matt Cooke.

Think about that for a second.

Cooke, who let down his teammates and their fans last spring by drawing a thoroughly unnecessary 17-game suspension from the NHL, received nearly the same roar as the Penguins' two injured superstars before the team beat the Florida Panthers, 4-2.

Cooke will remember the moment for a long time.

I'm thinking for the rest of his life.

"It was pretty special," he said. "You never know what to expect. You're always surprised when it's that good. I mean, I'm a third-line player."

A third-line player with a past.

More on that in a bit.

There was another loud ovation for Cooke in the second period. It came after he drove hard to the net with a step on Florida center Stephen Weiss and banged in a terrific pass from linemate Joe Vitale to give the Penguins a 2-0 lead. "Joey did all the work on that one," Cooke said. "I must have shot the puck all of 6 inches."

Don't look now, but Cooke leads the Penguins with three goals after their first four games.

"I've learned in the past that these things are streaky," he said. "When you got your confidence and you're feeling good and you're playing with your head up, you're going to make plays."

Watching and listening to the love pour down on Cooke before and during the game made it hard to believe he is the same man who so many wanted traded or released after last season. Yes, he received what he called an "overwhelming ovation" from the fans when he was introduced before the final regular-season home game when he still was facing his suspension for the first round of the playoffs. "I really didn't know what to expect that night," he said.

But that was before the seven-game loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round. There is no arguing Cooke sabotaged the Penguins' chances. Crosby had to miss the games because of his concussion symptoms, Malkin because of his knee injury. But Cooke was out only because he foolishly and brutally elbowed New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh in a game March 20.

I have no doubt the NHL came down too harshly on Cooke. It wanted to send a strong message not just to Cooke -- a repeat offender with illegal violent hits -- but also to Penguins owner Mario Lemieux, who had been so outspoken about eliminating head shots in the NHL game. That he received 17 games when other players subsequently received no suspensions or one or two games for similar hits was a joke.

I also have no doubt the Penguins would have beaten the Lightning with Cooke in the lineup. His reputation as a notorious cheap-shot artist masked the fact he's a really good hockey player. It's not just his three early goals this season. He's a huge part of the team's perfect penalty-killing unit, which stopped the Panthers on five tries and hasn't given up a goal in 16 short-handed situations in the four games.

But that only partially explains why the Penguins' 208th consecutive sellout crowd reached out to embrace Cooke Tuesday night.

Pittsburgh fans like when an athlete takes responsibility for his mistakes and accepts blame for the consequences. Cooke did after the Lightning took the Penguins out. But he did more than that. He promised to change.

So far, the man is keeping his word.

"I hurt my team," Cooke said. "We'd all like to go through life saying we have no regrets. Well, I have one big one, and I'll carry it with me the rest of my life ...

"I promised my teammates and my ownership that it would never happen again. I'm not going to put myself in a position where I hurt them again. That's why I'm not looking for the big hits. I know there's no gray area for me anymore. It's either a legal hit or it's not a legal hit. I accept that."

Cooke is good enough to make that adjustment to his game and still be effective. He doesn't have to take the cheap shots. His clean checks are plenty effective.

It's funny, Cooke took a hit to the chin from Calgary's Cory Sarich Saturday night that was borderline dirty. If Cooke had delivered that same hit, he almost certainly would have been suspended. Or if Sarich had delivered it to one of Cooke's teammates, he probably would have been suspended.

As it was, Sarich received no punishment from the NHL.

Cooke refuses to complain. He figures he put himself in this situation. Anyway, what good would complaining do?

"I'm just playing hockey," the man said.

Playing it pretty well, too.

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. More articles by this author

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