Cooke embraces his role as agitator

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TAMPA, Fla. -- Matt Cooke knows Jarkko Ruutu.

Matt Cooke played with Jarkko Ruutu.

But Matt Cooke is no Jarkko Ruutu.

Not the way Cooke sees it, anyway.

Sure, he and Ruutu were teammates in Vancouver for a few years, and Ruutu's departure via free agency this summer probably is the biggest reason Cooke is on the Penguins' payroll today, since it sent general manager Ray Shero in search of a replacement agitator.

Still, even though their job descriptions are similar, Cooke is adamant that they go about their work in decidedly different ways.

"I don't go out and stick [opponents] after the whistle and yap and do all those types of things," he said. "I try to play in between the whistles.

"It's a completely different approach [than Ruutu's]. I'm going to try to get guys off their game and get guys to worry about me, but not by sticking them in the back of the legs or punching after the whistle, that kind of stuff."

Ruutu, who signed with Ottawa in July, is one of the game's most accomplished pot-stirrers, and isn't shy about straying outside the rule book to do it. He's a fixture on lists of most-hated opponents, and comes by it honestly.

Cooke, who joined the Penguins as a free agent a few days after Ruutu moved to the Senators, can be every bit as annoying as Ruutu, but figures his greatest impact -- literally and figuratively -- is rooted in his aggressive work in the attacking zone.

"I'm a guy who goes in and creates space for our team, because on the forecheck, every time I go in, I'm going to finish my check," he said.

"I'm going to play hard, keep guys accountable on the other team so that, if it's my line or somebody else's line out there, they're going to take that extra look over their shoulder. It takes that split-second away so that they don't have time to make the play [they want]."

Cooke did not play in the Penguins' 3-2 exhibition victory against Tampa Bay at the St. Pete Times Forum last night or their 5-4 shootout loss to the Lightning at Mellon Arena Saturday, but he can expect to stay busy for the balance of the preseason.

Shero said yesterday that Cooke "most likely" will dress for the remaining three exhibition games, including one against Toronto at 7:40 p.m. tomorrow at Mellon Arena.

Precisely where Cooke will fit in with the Penguins isn't clear, although most indications at this point are that he'll be the third-line right winger.

Regardless of the precise niche he fills, however, Cooke is convinced that he will be more of a factor in the offense than Ruutu, who had 16 points in each of his two seasons with the Penguins.

"I want to produce offensively," Cooke said. "I look for myself to score 15 goals, over 30 points."

He managed 10 goals and 13 assists in 78 games with Vancouver and Washington last season, but put up 30 points in 2006-07. He posted career-bests in goals (15), assists (27) and points (42) in 2002-03.

Although his experience in the Eastern Conference is limited to those 17 games with the Capitals (in which he had three goals and four assists), Cooke believes offenses are less restricted here.

"I think there's a little more freedom to play with your instincts, on the offensive side," he said. "I found in the West, it was very structured."

Although he has been used on the right side since camp opened, Cooke is versatile enough -- and willing -- to play any position up front.

"It doesn't really matter to me," he said. "If I got asked to play center, I'll play it. I'm easy."

Except, like Ruutu, for the guys who have to play against him.

NOTES -- Kris Letang, Max Talbot and Tyler Kennedy scored for the Penguins last night, while Jussi Jokinen and ex-Penguins right winger Michel Ouellet got the Lightning goals. Penguins goalie Dany Sabourin stopped 22 of 24 shots and John Curry turned aside all 15 he faced. ... Defenseman Sergei Gonchar's injured left shoulder was examined by Dr. Charles Burke yesterday, but the MRI that might provide more insight on the extent of the damage still has not been scheduled. ... Another round of roster cuts will be made today. ... Defenseman Rob Scuderi, out with bruised ribs since Wednesday, resumed practicing yesterday. "[Rebounding from] four days off this time of year isn't an easy thing to do," he said. "You get pretty rusty pretty quick. But it's just good to be out there, to feel good and be able to breathe and move around." ... TSN, a Canadian network, will televise the game tomorrow.

Dave Molinari can be reached at . First Published September 23, 2008 4:00 AM


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