Calling Cooke an 'agitator' a disservice

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Their lockers are just a few feet apart in the Penguins' room, but Sidney Crosby and Matt Cooke might as well be from different planets. Crosby is well on his way to being one of the NHL's all-time superstars, the face of the league and soon to be the face of the Olympics. Cooke is, well ...

How would you describe Cooke?

I took a shot at it and used the term "agitator" Sunday after the Penguins' 2-1 shootout win against the Detroit Red Wings at Mellon Arena. Cooke smiled politely. But he clearly didn't like it.

"I've always kind of been in that stereotype and I've always tried to get out of it," he said. "An agitator, to me, is someone who gets 10 points a year and does his job. I like to think I contribute more to the team than that. I can get you 30-40 points a year and 10-15 goals."

You know what? Cooke is absolutely right. Calling him an agitator just won't do. Forget his 11 goals and 22 points so far this season. The term doesn't fairly describe his defensive work, especially as a penalty-killer.

I'm here this morning to call Cooke huge in this latest Penguins' win.

"There's no real stats to show that," Crosby said. "But we don't win that game without those guys doing their job."

The penalty-killers.

Wingers Cooke, Jordan Staal, Craig Adams and Pascal Dupuis, primarily.

Their five kills Sunday made it 20 in a row for the Penguins and 26 of the past 29. Three came consecutively with the game scoreless. The biggest came in overtime after defenseman Sergei Gonchar was called for hooking with 1:21 left. Cooke and Staal did most of the work in that 4-on-3 situation -- along with defenseman Mark Eaton -- and limited the Red Wings to just two shots.

"That's a tough penalty to kill," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "Those guys really minimized their opportunities."

Added Crosby, speaking from his superstar perspective, "We appreciate what they do because we know how difficult it can be playing on the power play against guys like that. They can really frustrate you."

That's the sort of thing Cooke brings to the Penguins every game. He brought it in his first season here last season -- along with 13 goals and 31 points and another goal and seven points in the playoffs -- when the team won the Stanley Cup. He plays with a physical edge that every team needs.

Yes, Cooke will disturb the peace, occasionally. Philadelphia Flyers winger Arron Asham made a big deal of it after the teams played Jan. 24. He accused Cooke of biting him during a scrum late in the game, then called him "gutless" for not fighting when he challenged him later. "He's garbage to me and I have no respect for him at all," Asham said.

Suddenly, agitator didn't seem like such an insulting description, you know?

"He can say whatever he wants," Cooke said, dismissively, denying again that he snacked on Asham's finger. "If he's worried about me and yapping at me, he's not worried about the task at hand. With nine minutes left in a 1-1 hockey game, he wanted to fight. I wanted to stay on the ice and help my team win."

So Cooke did. He got the deciding goal in a 2-1 win on the power play when he deflected in a Gonchar shot with 1:47 left. Of late, he has been getting more ice time on the power play because of his willingness to take a beating in front of the net. Clearly, he takes as well as he gives.

Cooke is among the Penguins who will be an unrestricted free agent after the season. You think he wants to stay? You have no idea.

"I love it here. It's an amazing place," Cooke said. "It's one thing to be a part of a winning atmosphere. But this team and this city have made it very comfortable for my family. I spent a long time in one city" -- Vancouver for nearly nine years ---- "and to be able to feel like I found a home again is a nice feeling."

Gonchar and Eaton also will be free agents, and their contract status surely will get more attention between now and then than Cooke's. It's nice to think the Penguins will keep all three. It's really nice to think they'll keep Cooke.

That physical edge, remember?

"You need all sorts to win," Cooke said. "You need superstars. You need points-getters. You need grinders. You need role players."

Notice the man didn't say agitators.

I know this:

I won't make that mistake with him again.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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