NEW YORK -- The question couldn't have been more direct.
Same with the response.
After the Penguins' game-day skate Monday at Madison Square Garden, left winger Matt Cooke was asked if the charge by Philadelphia forward Arron Asham that Cooke bit him during a scrum in the third period of the Penguins' 2-1 victory Sunday at the Wachovia Center was true.
"No," Cooke said. "There was a scrum, and I went in and grabbed [Flyers winger Scott] Hartnell and had ahold of him. All I knew was that someone was the third man in the pile, grabbing me, scratching my face, digging and clawing the third or fourth time.
"Then, I found out [who] later, proceeded to rip my helmet off and punch me in the back of the head four or five times. And I have the welts to prove it."
The reality is that Cooke and Asham are the only ones who know whether a bite was delivered, and there's not much reason to believe either will stray from his original version of events.
"I watched from the bench, saw Matt with Hartnell," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Monday. "Saw Asham repeatedly try to rip Matt Cooke off there after that.
"It was the bottom of a scrum. I don't know what happened. I'm sure there was some rippin' and pullin'."
The NHL, which declined to punish Hartnell after Penguins defenseman Kris Letang claimed Hartnell bit him earlier this season because there was no video evidence to support the charge, opted against fining or suspending Cooke, too.
But Asham's charges against Cooke were not limited to biting; Asham also claimed that Cooke refused to fight him.
"Usually, if you bite somebody you stick up for yourself and you fight the guy," Asham told a group of Philadelphia-area reporters. "Not this guy, he's chicken and I have no respect for him."
On that count, Cooke said, he's guilty as charged. Getting into a fight in the third period of a tied score simply wouldn't have made sense, he said.
"It was a 1-1 hockey game with 10 minutes left," Cooke said. "I'm sure I'm not the first one who said no to fighting him, so, whatever.
"He's allowed to say whatever he wants. It's a free country. It doesn't bother me at all.
"I think I've proven myself. This year, I've fought three times already and if I have to do that, I will. But not at times when we need to play."
Passing on Asham's invitation to fight turned out to be a shrewd move by Cooke, since he scored the winning goal with 107 seconds left in regulation.
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury started Monday night's game against the New York Rangers, his first appearance since breaking his left ring finger Jan. 14 in Edmonton.
A few hours before the game, Fleury wasn't ruling out having his finger numbed to limit the chances of it causing a problem for him.
"We have some stuff," Fleury said. "I'll talk to the trainers. Anything legal could help."
Fleury planned a little extra treatment for his new glove, too. It is the same as his usual one, except for an enlarged finger slot to accommodate his splint and some extra padding on the outside, but was not completely broken in by Monday.
Consequently, Fleury planned to have it spend some time on a hydrocollator, a piece of equipment that is used by the training staff and emits steam, so that the glove would become more flexible.
Despite getting Fleury back last night, the Penguins still had a rather diluted lineup.
Right winger Bill Guerin and defenseman Alex Goligoski were scratched, both because of undisclosed injuries.
"I would label them both as 'day to day,' " Bylsma said.
Forward Max Talbot sat out his third game in a row because of an unspecified injury, but said it's "realistic" to think that he could return Thursday for a game against Ottawa at Mellon Arena.
Goligoski's spot in the lineup was taken by veteran Martin Skoula, while Chris Conner was recalled from the Penguins' American Hockey League team in Wilkes-Barre to fill in for Guerin.
Dave Molinari can be reached at email@example.com . First Published January 26, 2010 5:00 AM