Cooke's physical game a big hit for Penguins


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Playing the body is, simply put, Matt Cooke's game.

He does it often, and generally with great vigor.

It is a major facet of the job description for a guy who labors with Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy on what might be the best third line in hockey.

But scoring goals, that's something special.

Cooke has logged 670 games in the NHL and scored only 101 goals in those contests. He didn't reach the milestone that is No. 100 until Oct. 10 at Toronto, when he threw a shot over goalie Vesa Toskala's glove early in the first period.

That was one of the few games in which Cooke's goal production matched the number of hits with which he was credited, and the goal is sure to be his most indelible enduring memory of that evening.

"The 100 goals is a milestone, like 400 games used to be," Cooke said. "Every century -- every 100, 200, 300 of those -- is a milestone and [reflects] that you've been in the league a period of time that's allowed you to do that.

"Obviously, for some guys it's different. Sid [Crosby] got his 100th goal in his third year. It took me 12. But it's a sense of accomplishment for me, or a feeling of accomplishment, at least."

Crosby holds a 138-101 edge on Cooke, and that gap isn't likely to shrink. Then again, Crosby probably isn't going to bump Cooke from his place among the NHL's most reliable hitters, either.

Cooke ranked fifth in the league going into last night's games with 35 hits. That's precisely where he finished in 2008-09, when he had 262.

A year earlier, Cooke placed 14th with 198, and he was 11th in 2006-07, when he was credited with 209.

It is pretty tough to miss the trend there, and Cooke's willingness to play a physical game had a lot to do with general manager Ray Shero's decision to sign him as a free agent in July 2008.

"The hits are a big thing for me, because it's kind of an [asset] that I'm able to bring to this team," Cooke said. "The average fan might not know how it helps, but they see a big hit and they like it."

Cooke delivered one of those midway through the first period of the Penguins' 4-1 loss to New Jersey Saturday night at Mellon Arena, nailing Devils defenseman Bryce Salvador along the right-wing boards in the New Jersey end.

That wasn't enough to alter the course of what became the Penguins' second defeat this season, but a resounding bodycheck can do that on occasion. Cooke knows that as well as anyone, because he's been counted on for a physical, blue-collar game since he broke into the Ontario Hockey League with Windsor in 1995.

Since then, he has scored more than 15 goals just twice, be it in major junior, the minors leagues or the NHL.

Including the time he got, uh, 45.

It was 1996-97, Cooke's second with the Spitfires, and he was coming off a rookie year during which he had scored eight goals, set up 11 others and played the workmanlike game that had earned him a place in Windsor's lineup.

"I made the team in major-junior as an energy/grinder guy," he said.

That changed, temporarily, during his sophomore season. He was placed on the No. 1 line, with a couple of overage linemates, and responded just the way the Spitfires hoped, piling up 45 goals and 50 assists.

"I got put in a position that allowed me to get a lot more points," Cooke said. "I was put in a situation for success."

The next season, which he split between Windsor and Kingston, Cooke's goal output dropped to 22, which turned out to be seven more than he'd get in any of his first dozen pro seasons.

He shuttled between Vancouver and the Canucks' American Hockey League affiliate in Syracuse during his first few seasons after junior, and he concluded that his chances of drawing a steady NHL paycheck hinged on his willingness to a role like the one he'd been given when he broke in with Windsor.

"When I went to Vancouver, Mike Keenan was the coach and I knew very early that I was not going to be on the top few lines and that I had to bring something to stay," Cooke said. "Early on, I wasn't as physical as I am now, but I did whatever Mike asked me to, and that's what he liked."

And he's still doing it, even if there isn't a statistical milestone to prove it.


NOTES -- The New Jersey game, when the Penguins went 0-for-4 on the power play and the Devils were 1-for-1, was the fourth time in 11 games they have lost the special-teams battle. They are 2-2 when that happens, 3-0 when scoring more power-play goals than they allow and 4-0 when breaking even. ... The Penguins did not practice yesterday.


For more on the Penguins, read the new Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Dave Molinari can be reached at dmolinari@post-gazette.com .


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