Ex-Penguin, now Minnesota Wild Matt Cooke wave to the fans at the end of a video presentation at the Consol Energy Center Thursday.
By Shelly Anderson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Penguins did not hold a game-day skate Thursday. Their opponent, the Minnesota Wild, did.
Surely, former Penguins winger Matt Cooke, now of the Wild, had no plans to sneak into the Penguins locker room at Consol Energy Center to pull some sort of prank on his former teammates.
"I didn't say that," Cooke said with a mostly straight face.
An equipment malfunction or some other such gag most likely would not have surprised the Penguins. Cooke, after all, was behind many such shenanigans in the five seasons he spent with them.
The Penguins had something planned for Cooke, too, in his first game against his former team. They showed a video tribute during a first-period timeout that brought the crowd to its feet. Cooke, a member of the Penguins' 2009 Stanley Cup team, raised his stick in response from the visiting bench.
Before the game, Cooke wasn't sure what kind of reception he would get after he signed with the Wild as a free agent in the offseason.
"I hope I don't get booed," he said.
Cooke, 35, entered the game with five goals, 12 points in 36 games -- and the respect of coach Mike Yeo, a former Penguins assistant who also was part of that 2009 Cup team.
"What he's given us is exactly what I remembered, to be honest," Yeo said. "We were looking for a guy who could play a real important role on our penalty-kill, a guy who could play against top players, a guy who's going to bring you momentum. And, obviously, the speed and the physicality that he brings is part of that as well.
"That said, the fact that he's playing as disciplined as he is, it's a bonus for us."
There is that.
Cooke, an agitator long considered dirty, reached a breaking point when he was suspended for the final 10 regular-season games and the first round of the playoffs in 2010-11 for blatantly elbowing Ryan McDonagh of the New York Rangers in the head. He spent that summer refining his game and has not been suspended since.
"It's a continual work in progress for me," Cooke said. "I do video [study] all the time. I'm trying to assure myself of success."
The Penguins chose to stick with him despite some public pessimism that he would be able to make such a radical change at that stage of his career.
"I'll forever be thankful for the support that I had here from ownership, management, coaching staff, players, media, everybody, fans," said Cooke, who felt as if he was embraced locally. "The fans really make you feel like you're a Pittsburgher forever when you win here. And they supported through tough times, too. I have a special place for Pittsburgh."
Having Yeo as a familiar face with a familiar hockey philosophy helped, Cooke said.
"It made the transition to a new team really easy," Cooke said. "Having Mike and Mike's trust, knowing him and being able to come into a situation where the system is fairly familiar allowed me to be successful right away. It wasn't a big transition. That was important for me in my decision-making in July."
Cooke didn't expect his familiarity with the Penguins to give him a big advantage, but the plan was to have him matched up as much as possible against the top line, centered by Sidney Crosby, who was leading the NHL in scoring going into the game.
"I said when I was here, the guy does things at full speed that I don't try standing still," Cooke said. "You have to play tight on him. Don't give him any space."
Nor would Cooke give Crosby or any of the other Penguins any leeway if he invaded the home team's area of the arena.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said before the game had not heard of anything that pointed to Cooke's fingerprints.
"I'm sure they're finding surprises if he did get through," Bylsma said, laughing. "We did change the locks on him. We'll see if he got through that."
Shelly Anderson: email@example.com, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.
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