Matt Cooke celebrates his second-period goal against the Capitals in a win earlier this season.
By Ron Cook Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The intent here is not to make Penguins winger Matt Cooke a victim. He is a big boy. He has brought on most of his problems, including fines and suspensions from the NHL office and vitriol and hatred from other teams that believe he intentionally tries to hurt their players. He has survived all of it to last 13-plus seasons in the league. He will survive this latest controversy with Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson.
Know this from the start:Cooke is not looking for sympathy. He convinced himself a long time ago that he deserves any lingering fallout from his brutal blind-side hit in 2010 on Boston's Marc Savard, which essentially ended Savard's career, and his senseless elbow to the head in 2011 of the New York Rangers' Ryan McDonagh, which resulted in a 17-game suspension for Cooke and cost the Penguins in their first-round playoff series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
But just because Cooke accepts it doesn't make it right. With the incident with Karlsson, it's dead wrong.
Instead of focusing on Cooke's significant contributions to the Penguins' 4-2 win Wednesday night against Ottawa, which included skating on the same line with stars Evgeni Malkin and James Neal and more than carrying his share of the load, the attention is on his check of Karlsson, which left him with a lacerated Achilles tendon, surgery Thursday and a recovery period of three-to-four months. Cooke has been vilified, not just in Ottawa, which lost its best player, but in many hockey locales for no other reason than ...
How did Penguins teammate Pascal Dupuis put it?
"Because of who Matt is."
The check on Karlsson was legal, if unfortunate. The NHL office confirmed that Thursday.
This is the same league office that told Cooke it "would love to whack me" after his hit on Savard but couldn't because the hit wasn't against the rules at the time. It also is the same league office that came down so hard on him after the hit on McDonagh.
There's no doubt NHL discipline czar Brendan Shanahan would have punished Cooke this time if there were even the slightest chance his hit on Karlsson was malicious.
"Instantly, your reaction is you just feel awful," Cooke said Thursday of Karlsson's injury. "Totally not my intention. Just a freak kind of accident."
Cooke said he reached out to Karlsson but didn't get a response. "Frankly, if it doesn't get a response, that's OK," he said on the "Vinnie and Cook" show on 93.7 The Fan. "I just want him to know I felt bad about the result." Cooke also said he understood the anger directed at him by Ottawa general manager Bryan Murray and coach Paul MacLean, even though he has worked hard to change his game since the McDonagh hit and had avoided even a hint of trouble before Wednesday night. Karlsson won the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman last season. "He's a sick player. He's so good," Dupuis said.
"If it was our team -- whether it was [Kris Letang] or Sid [Crosby] or [Malkin], clearly, we'd all be upset and have reactions -- emotional reactions -- because of the loss," Cooke said. "He's a great player. I don't judge them for their reactions."
That includes Senators enforcer Chris Neil, who jumped Cooke late in the game and sucker-punched him a couple of times. "They're trying to defend a teammate and stand up for a teammate," Cooke said. "I understand that."
On a different night, under different circumstances, Cooke would be more remembered for his role in the win. After trying Eric Tangradi, Dustin Jeffrey, Tanner Glass, Tyler Kennedy and Zach Boychuk on left wing with Malkin and Neal with no positive results, coach Dan Bylsma finally turned to Cooke in the final two periods against the Senators. It didn't take Cooke long to make an impact. His forecheck forced an Ottawa turnover and led to the winning goal by Neal early in the third period. Cooke got an assist on the play, the first point this season by the other winger playing with Malkin (the center) and Neal.
"It felt like I got to be involved," Cooke said.
Cooke also was credited with three of the Penguins' 23 blocked shots. He took a blast from Senators defenseman Sergei Gonchar off his chin and collarbone in the second period. "It's a mentality," Cooke said. "You have to be prepared to stand there and be willing to get hit with an 80- or 90- or 100-mph slap shot. At the end of the day, it's a small sacrifice to keep the puck out of your net."
It wasn't surprising that Cooke held his own with Malkin and Neal. He had 19 goals and 38 points last season. He's much more than just an agitator.
But Cooke's time with Malkin and Neal might be over. The Penguins called up phenom Beau Bennett from the minors Thursday and could use him with Malkin and Neal tonight in Winnipeg. They can't bury the kid on the fourth line. They need to play him and see what he can do on the NHL level.
Bylsma won't offend Cooke if he puts him back on the third line with Brandon Sutter and Kennedy. "I just want to help my team win," Cooke said.
It will be interesting to see the reaction Cooke gets in Winnipeg. It probably won't be a warm welcome. He's an easy opponent for the fans to dislike because of his past.
The reaction Cooke gets when the Penguins play April 22 in Ottawa will be much colder. He's prepared for it. Not long after the Savard hit, the Penguins played in Boston. Cooke woke up on game day to see his picture on the back page of the Boston Herald with the headline, "WANTED: At Least One Bruin To Teach This Bum A Lesson." That night, he had to fight Bruins enforcer Shawn Thornton and took a good beating.
"That's not in my thoughts right now," Cooke said of the trip to Ottawa. Instead, he's focusing on the game tonight against the Jets.
That's smart on Cooke's part. Why worry about something that won't happen for more than two months? Cooke knows what the outcome will be, anyway. He will survive. He always survives.