Cook: Cooke won't let Ottawa influence his focus

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So what is like to be called a "goon" by an opposing owner and told that you have no place in the NHL?

To be called "gutless" by a national sportscaster?

To show up in an opposing building in front of hundreds of fans holding up most-wanted posters with your picture on them?

To be a constant target for opposing players, looking to take you out with a big hit, clean or otherwise?

In other words, what is it like to be Penguins winger Matt Cooke?

"I'm a big boy," Cooke said Monday.

"I try not to think about it all that much. A lot of that stuff used to bother me a lot more, but not so much now. That comes with maturity and knowing who I am as a person and what my role on the team is."

It seemed right to reach out to Cooke. The Penguins will play the Ottawa Senators in Round 2 of the Stanley Cup playoffs and he figures to be in the middle of everything, starting in Game 1 tonight at Consol Energy Center. That goes back to a check he put on Ottawa's Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Erik Karlsson in a game here Feb. 13 that resulted in a lacerated Achilles tendon for Karlsson.

The hit prompted Ottawa owner Eugene Melnyk to say of Cooke: "That player should never play in this league. It's a league for elite players." It prompted NBC analyst Mike Milbury to make his "gutless" remark about Cooke, adding, "He's a freakin' skunk." It prompted Ottawa fans to show up in their building for what they called a "Matt Cooke Hate Fest" when the Penguins played there April 22. And it prompted Senators enforcer Chris Neil to try to fight Cooke on their first shift in that game and Ottawa teammates Eric Gryba and Chris Phillips to take penalties against Cooke in what became a 3-1 Penguins win.

"I can't control what other people say or think," Cooke said. "I'm not going to change their opinions ...

"If I can linger in the [Senators'] heads a bit, that will make me and my game more effective. I'm not saying there will be a carryover for them. I'm just saying there definitely won't be one in my case or my game. There will no hesitation in how I play the game."

Cooke's physicality was a big part of the six-game win against the New York Islanders in the first round of these playoffs. He led the team with 25 hits. One -- a crunching check on Islanders defenseman Matt Carkner -- directly led to a goal by Penguins center Brandon Sutter in Game 4.

"I think I had more hits in that series than I did all season," Cooke said. "It's part of the grind of a seven-game series. If you can get in on the forecheck and get in a lick or a bump, it becomes influential over the course of the series. In Game 7, defensemen will remember a hit from Game 2."

None of the Islanders screamed about Cooke's hits. The story of how he changed his game often has been told. He has tried hard to change his well-deserved cheap-shot reputation since a dirty hit on New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh in a game in March 2011 resulted in a 17-game suspension, cost the Penguins their playoff series against the Tampa Bay Lightning and nearly cost him his Penguins career, if not his NHL career.

But that didn't stop the negative reaction to the Karlsson hit, especially in Ottawa. Cooke declined Neil's challenge to fight. The situation was different, he said, than in March 2010 when he fought Boston tough guy Shawn Thornton and took a beating in the first Penguins-Bruins game after his nasty shoulder-to-head hit on Bruins forward Marc Savard effectively ended Savard's career.

"I've said many times [the Karlsson hit] was a freak accident," Cooke said. "I didn't think I owed anyone any accountability for something I didn't intentionally do.

"I hit Marc Savard intentionally. That's a big difference. I certainly didn't intend for the results to be what they were, but I intended to hit him. I felt I owed it to the Boston team and their fans and my teammates to [fight Thornton]."

It was before that game in Boston that Cooke awoke to his picture on the back page of the tabloid Boston Herald under the headline: "WANTED: At Least One Bruin To Teach This Bum A Lesson." He won't be surprised if he gets similar treatment in Games 3 and 4 in Ottawa. He can take it. Like he said, he's a big boy. He has been through it so often that he believes even his family can deal with it. He wasn't so sure about that before the Boston game when -- in his words at the time -- "there was talk about something happening to me and there being blood on the ice. It's awful."

"My wife and I do a great job of conveying to our kids what's going on," Cooke said Monday. "People see something that happens on the ice and react to it. It has nothing to do with who I am as a person, as a dad and as someone who tries to do good work in the community. It's interesting to me that we're able to express that to kids 9 and 12 and they get it better than grown people on the outside."

Only Cooke knows if that was a shot at Melnyk, who made a North American joke of himself by publicly bragging about ordering a forensic investigation into the hit on Karlsson. Or Milbury. Or the haters in the Ottawa crowd. Or Neil and the other Senators.

Or all of 'em.

But this we know for sure:

Cooke will be on the ice for Games 1-2 here against the Senators. He also will be in Ottawa for Games 3-4.

Stay tuned.

mobilehome - penguins - 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.


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