Penguins' Cooke skates fine line

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This is not about simply tweaking his game, and Matt Cooke knows it.

A minor adjustment, a little fine-tuning, won't do it. Not even close.

There are habits -- deep-rooted habits -- to be broken. A mindset to be changed.

Cooke has come by his reputation as one of the NHL's premier cheap-shot artists players honestly -- if he has not been the league's dirtiest player in recent years, he has at least been a medalist -- and he realizes he will not shed it easily. Or quickly.

Scouting report
  • Matchup: Penguins at Vancouver Canucks, 10:08 p.m. today, Rogers Arena.
  • TV, radio: Versus, WXDX-FM (105.9).
  • Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Roberto Luongo for Canucks.
  • Penguins: Own all-time record of 18-19-6 in season openers. ... LW Steve Sullivan has 15 goals in 37 career games against Canucks. ... Are 1-3 in past four visits to Vancouver after getting five victories and a tie in previous six.
  • Canucks: Lost to Boston in seven games in Stanley Cup final. ... LW Daniel Sedin is defending NHL scoring champion. ... Were 3-4 in preseason play.
  • Hidden stat: Penguins have won first road game in four of past five seasons.

Changing one's game, or rehabilitating a toxic image, can be a daunting challenge. But Cooke is, from all indications, intent on doing it.

For most of his teammates, the Penguins regular-season opener against Vancouver at 10:08 p.m. today at Rogers Arena will be their first game of consequence since a 1-0 loss to Tampa Bay in Game 7 of their first-round playoff series in April.

Cooke, however, will be playing in his first since March 20, when he drove an elbow into the head of New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh in a game at Consol Energy Center.

That hit, which came just weeks after the league ordered Cooke to sit out four games because of a hit from behind on Fedor Tyutin of Columbus, led to a 17-game suspension. After the punishment -- technically, it covered the final 10 regular-season games and the duration of the Penguins' Round 1 playoff series -- for the hit on McDonagh was handed down, Cooke spoke of the need to go about his work differently, to exorcise dangerous, often despicable, hits from his repertoire.

He got a little counseling and a lot of criticism early in his suspension, and did much soul-searching during and after it. And, finally, there were four preseason games in recent weeks during which his restraint faced its first meaningful test.

Cooke passed. Because of, well, passing.

There were, he said, "at least a handful" of occasions when he passed on opportunities to launch his body into an opponent because he was not certain he could deliver the hit within the confines of the rules.

"You certainly have to make a conscious effort to make an adjustment in your play," said assistant coach Tony Granato, who oversees the forwards. "And I think he's done that in training camp."

It has not been automatic. Cooke acknowledged that he still is at a point where he pauses to think about whether to deliver a check, rather than acting instinctively, as he did for so many seasons.

"When you play a certain way for the better part of 30 years, it's not easy to change," he said. "But I'm confident that with the amount of time and effort and support that I've had throughout all of this that the changes I've made are here to stay.

"There is a process that goes with read-and-react situations and there was before that I just didn't go through. That's something that's in my head now, and I trust it."

Much as Cooke trusts his decision-making ability now, opponents and officials probably will not. Not anytime soon, at least. If he delivers anything resembling an illegal hit, the general reaction will be that he is guilty until proven innocent.

"I'm not going to get the benefit of the doubt for a long time," he said. "And I'm not naïve enough to think that I'm going to."

Fact is, many likely will define Cooke's career by some of the wicked hits of which he has been guilty, especially the blindside one in March 2010 from which Boston's Marc Savard still has not recovered.

The reality, though, is that he is a capable, useful winger. He's an effective forechecker, works diligently in his own end and is an integral member of what was the NHL's top penalty-killing unit last season.

And those are things the Penguins don't want to -- or believe will -- change this season.

"He's such a big part of how we play," Granato said.

That does not figure to be different, even if his personal stats line will be.

"Am I going to get eight hits a game?" Cooke said. "No. But I'm getting three or four or five more steals a game, instead. So, it's benefiting in different areas."

So there will be fewer hits. Especially the kind that make it into the highlights and grab the attention of the league office. A balance, however, must be struck. If Cooke tries to get by strictly on finesse, his role, ice time and value would plummet.

"He can't take the physical part out of his game," Granato said. "That is what makes him special. When players play against him, they know he's coming in on the forecheck and they know that when he's on the ice, he's got to be physical."

Even if it's not always the way he used to be.

Dave Molinari: or Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published October 6, 2011 4:00 AM


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