Many in the game believed Matt Cooke never would change.
Others were certain it wouldn't last.
Some still aren't convinced he won't have a relapse in the future.
And probably never will be.
That skepticism -- a lot of it completely understandable -- notwithstanding, Cooke's record over the past season-plus provides compelling evidence that his efforts to exorcise questionable hits from his game have been an unmitigated success.
He enters the game against Ottawa Wednesday at Consol Energy Center as the Penguins' seventh-most penalized player, with eight minutes in 13 games. He shares that ranking with Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis.
What's more, Cooke has gone seven games without being assessed a penalty, and none of his four infractions to date -- a trip, a slash, a cross-check and an interference minor -- has merited even a cursory look from Brendan Shanahan, who administers supplemental discipline for the league.
There was a time, not so long ago, when the people who handled those duties kept Cooke on speed-dial.
Right up through his final shift of the 2010-11 season, in fact.
Cooke was credited with 192 hits, second most on the team, in 67 games that season. Whether he got one for driving an elbow into the head of New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh -- a blow that got him suspended for the final 10 regular-season games and their entire first-round playoff series against Tampa Bay -- isn't known.
Regardless, that proved to be a pivotal moment in his career.
Cooke, cognizant that being tagged a serial headhunter had put his livelihood in jeopardy, sought counseling during his unscheduled time off and made a conscious effort to adjust his style of play. The objective was to remove the cheap shots, but not all physicality, from his game.
Striking that balance wasn't easy, and Cooke said difficult, split-second decisions about whether to go through with a potential check still arise.
"There was a play against New Jersey [Feb. 2] where [David] Clarkson was right by our bench," he said. "I go to hit him, but he spins away. I let up, because it would have ended not good."
Cooke appeared in his 900th NHL game Sunday night at Consol Energy Center, and for most of the first 805, was known as a guy who not only was willing to give up his body to deliver a crushing check but also acted with no apparent concern for what the hit did to his opponent.
His blind-side hit that effectively ended the career of Boston center Marc Savard, though not punished by the NHL, inspired widespread outrage. And though it was not a catalyst for change, the McDonagh hit was.
In 2011-12, Cooke had 160 hits in 82 games, an average of less than two per game, after recording 192 in 67 the previous season. More telling is that despite appearing in 15 more games, his penalty-minutes total plunged from a team-high 129 to 44.
Through the first 13 games of this season, his hits-per-game average is up to 2.15 and he's on what would be a 50 penalty-minute pace for an 82-game season.
The process of altering his game might not end until he retires, but Cooke has learned to accumulate and process information faster than he used to, using it to determine whether delivering a hit -- tempting as it might be much of the time -- actually is the most prudent play he can make.
"I think it's become more instinctive to play the game -- not 'play the game,' because I still think I'm going to get hits and I'm going to play physical -- but to have a different approach to that aspect," he said.
"That just starts as to how I read the situation sooner. The moment I'm chasing the puck, it's just trying to take as much information as I can in, as opposed to just going for the biggest hit I can."
That is, by any measure, a seismic change in how Cooke goes about his job.
One that has made him, in some ways, more of an asset to his team. And removed him as a liability to his sport.
NOTES -- Zach Boychuk does not have a point in six games since being claimed on waivers from Carolina, despite spending most of his time on a line with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal. "He's been able to create for that line and made some good plays with that line but hasn't been able to finish them," coach Dan Bylsma said. "I think he does add to that line, but obviously it hasn't turned into a point. That's what kind of resonates with you when it comes to evaluation."... Rookie defenseman Joe Morrow was returned to the Penguins' minor league team in Wilkes-Barre. ... The Penguins had a scheduled day off Monday.
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published February 12, 2013 5:00 AM