Ron Cook: Cooke delivers best effort in a Penguins uniform


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It wasn't the best game of Matt Cooke's 14-year NHL career, although you would have had a hard time convincing the Consol Energy Center record crowd of 18,673, the New York Islanders and all but one of the Penguins Saturday afternoon.

"My best game was Game 7 of the [2004] playoffs against the Calgary Flames," Cooke said after playing a starring role in the Penguins' 2-0 win against the Islanders, their 15th consecutive.

Cooke's Vancouver Canucks against Jarome Iginla's Flames.

Iginla scored early to give the Flames a 1-0 lead. Cooke tied it for the Canucks in the second period. Iginla put the Flames ahead, 2-1, with another goal late in the third.

"We pull our goaltender and [Iginla] misses an open net," Cooke said. "As he's skating back, he trips over a jersey that someone had thrown on the ice and I'm able to score short-handed to tie the game with 5.7 seconds left."

Cooke made sure to recite the details loudly enough for Iginla -- his newest teammate with the Penguins -- to hear across the room.

"I remember. I wanted to cry," Iginla said, grinning.

"We lost anyway," Cooke said. "We were still short-handed and Martin Gelinas scored the winning goal early in overtime. I never got back on the ice."

This latest great game by Cooke had a much happier ending.

No one was better on the Consol Energy Center ice.

"He was unbelievable," Penguins defenseman Mark Eaton said. "He was flying in all aspects of the game. The [penalty-kill]. On defense. Offensively, he gave us a spark. He brought a lot of energy."

Penalty-kill?

Cooke, Craig Adams and Eaton killed all 1:55 of a five-on-three advantage for the Islanders late in the second period and early in the third, allowing just one shot on goal. A big part of the kill was Cooke's willingness to give up his body to block a shot by defenseman Mark Streit. It was the second long five-on-three kill for the Penguins in two games. Cooke, Adams and Paul Martin did most of the heavy lifting in a 4-0 win Thursday night against the Winnipeg Jets when the Jets had a two-man advantage for 1:56 early in the third period. It's believed Martin's left hand was broken blocking a shot by Winnipeg's Tobias Enstrom on that kill. Martin had surgery Sunday and will be out at least six weeks.

"We want to be out there in that situation," Cooke said. "We'd be willing to stand in there and take a shot off the face if we have to."

Cooke and the penalty-kill have never been better. The Islanders were 0 for 4 on the power play. Opponents have converted just two of their past 25 power-play chances.

Defense?

Cooke is a big part of the Penguins' third line, a top checking line. He is honest in his own end and a real pest on the forecheck, especially when he's killing a penalty. He has made significant contributions to the Penguins' franchise-record three consecutive shutouts, to their streak of not allowing more than two goals in 11 games.

A spark on offense?

Cooke scored the first goal -- the winning goal -- at 8:10 of the third period, jumping on a loose puck and turning and firing it past Islanders goaltender Evgeni Nabokov. It was Cooke's first goal since he had two in a 7-6 win March 2 against the Montreal Canadiens, the game that started the Penguins' long winning streak.

"It's been a long time coming. Too long," Cooke said. "It definitely felt like a long time. You want to chip in offensively whenever you can. You end up squeezing the stick a little harder. No one wants to go 14 games without a goal."

You could tell Cooke was feeling it after he scored. On his next shift, he drilled Islanders winger Matt Martin with a big hit. All of the Penguins were feeling it at that point. Evgeni Malkin followed with a big hit on forward Matt Moulson. James Neal sent defenseman Travis Hamonic flying. The Penguins had a 30-12 edge in hits. They won most of the effort plays. They had an 18-13 edge in blocked shots.

No wonder another of the new Penguins -- winger Brenden Morrow -- was thrilled.

"My cheeks are cramping from smiling so much since I got here," he said.

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma also was a happy man, although he was concerned about captain Sidney Crosby taking a puck in the mouth early in the game and losing teeth. The team announced Sunday that Crosby had surgery to repair a broken jaw and will be out indefinitely.

Bylsma said it was "fitting" that Cooke scored the winning goal.

No one in the team's room argued that point after the Penguins finished March with a 15-0 record to become the first NHL team to go an entire month without losing.

"Probably the best game I've even seen him play," red-hot goaltender Tomas Vokoun said of Cooke.

None of the Penguins have seen Cooke play better.

Except for Iginla, of course.

So where does this game rank on Cooke's list if not No. 1?

"You can say it's my best game with this team," he said. "Go ahead. You can go with that."

mobilehome - roncook

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. First Published April 1, 2013 4:00 AM


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