Cooke proving he is handier than Ruutu for Penguins



It's a comparison Matt Cooke has been trying to shake since he signed with the Penguins as a free agent in the summer, three days after the team lost Jarkko Ruutu.

Yes, both are left wingers who are considered gritty players and agitators.

Yet as his first season with the Penguins winds down, Cooke would like to think he has shown that while he has provided a useful role, it is not the same one previously held by Ruutu, who signed with Ottawa.

"I tried to tell people that we're different types of players," Cooke said yesterday after the Penguins practiced at Mellon Arena.

"I guess we try and create the same situation in a game, but we go about it in a completely different approach.

"I'm not a guy who's going to stick guys behind the play or after the whistle. I don't do a lot of rubbing in the face and that kind of stuff.

"I'm more of a guy who's going to play everybody hard, hit everybody no matter whether it's a fourth-line guy or their top defenseman. That just works for me."

Interim coach Dan Bylsma put Cooke in position to distance himself from the Ruutu comparisons by elevating him to a top-six forward spot over the past two games.

Cooke is playing alongside center and NHL leading scorer Evgeni Malkin and right winger Petr Sykora.

It's not as if the snarly mug of Ruutu has gotten that kind of love from a coach during his career.

Now that he's in such a prominent spot, away from his normal third- and fourth-line duties, Cooke is, well, the same as he has always been.

"I think the biggest thing for me is to not adjust too much," he said. "I want to bring a physical presence.

"I think the biggest thing I can do for them is let them know that they can dump the puck and we will get it back, that I'll get the puck back for them. You try and instill that in them. If we're outnumbered, instead of [Malkin] feeling like he's got to beat two guys, put it behind them and I'll go get it and we can play in the offensive zone."

Well, that and crash the net when it's appropriate -- as it was Saturday in the first period of a 4-3 victory against the New York Rangers.

He poked in a rebound of his backhand shot for the Penguins' second goal.

It was Cooke's 10th goal and 28th point this season. It's the sixth season he has eclipsed 20 points and he has a shot at his fourth season with 30 or more.

Ruutu never has had more points in an NHL season than the 19 he has now.

"He drives the net. He drives the corners. He's creating so much space out there," Sykora said of Cooke, who through yesterday was fourth in the NHL in hits with 250.

"I'm doing the same thing -- I'm trying to get the puck to [Malkin] all the time -- but in a different way.

"When I get the puck, I try to pass him the puck so he can use his speed through the neutral zone. [Cooke] tries to give him the puck, but with a different kind of play -- going in, battle for the puck, get the puck in the corners and give it to him.

"He's so good doing that that he's giving him as many pucks as I do. I think it's important to have that kind of grit on the line."

Cooke practiced with those linemates again and is likely to play there tomorrow against New Jersey as the Penguins end a franchise-record eight-game homestand. They are 5-1-1 so far.

One thing Malkin's line no longer has is three players who speak Russian.

Ukrainian winger Ruslan Fedotenko traded places with Cooke, going to center Jordan Staal's line.

Cooke said Sykora, a Czech who is fluent in Russian, sometimes translates on the bench, although Malkin does try to communicate.

"[Malkin] grunts three or four words to me every now and then and we get a chuckle," Cooke said.

"I speak English," Malkin insisted. "It's not big deal. Matt Cooke is good player, play hard and help our line."

Staal has had good chemistry with Cooke and right winger Tyler Kennedy at times this season and likes Cooke's sense of humor.

"He's always fun to joke around with," Staal said.

"He's a guy you can always poke fun at and he'll take it like a champ."

Staal also figures Malkin and Sykora inherited a linemate who surprises people with his game.

"I remember watching him in Vancouver growing up," he said. "I knew he was an agitator and a good player. I didn't know, to be honest, that he's as talented as he is."

He found out about that talent over the course of the season, just as Cooke hopes Penguins fans found out he is not interchangeable with Ruutu.

"I completely respect [Ruutu's game]," Cooke said.

"I played with Jarkko in Vancouver for three or four years, and there was room for both of us. We even played together at times.

"By all means, he's an effective player with what he does. I'm not him."


Shelly Anderson can be reached at shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721. First Published March 31, 2009 4:00 AM


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