Matt Cooke lined up a juicy slap shot during Penguins practice Monday, let it fly, and was puzzled when it sailed past Marc-Andre Fleury as the goaltender stayed upright on his skates instead of sinking into a butterfly.
"Are you too lazy to go down?" Cooke chastised Fleury.
"After a day off [Sunday], I don't trust you not to hit me in the head. Maybe I'll trust you more tomorrow. We'll see," Fleury replied.
"Well, you just gave up a goal," Cooke shot back.
It was but a small slice of the entertaining relationship between the winger and the goalie that has developed over the past three-plus years.
"He's a little bit of a ... joker," Fleury said of Cooke, halting and smiling while he carefully chose the label. "You've always got to watch for him because he's always trying to mess with me somehow.
"You make it fun, make it a challenge. It's fun competition."
The good-hearted exchanges between the two date to Cooke's first training camp with the Penguins in 2008.
"I've never seen a goalie yap like him," said Cooke, 33 and a 13-year NHL veteran.
Fleury yells at the shooters in practice with non-stop taunts, but of all the Penguins teammates Fleury, 27, has had, Cooke more than anyone felt compelled to engage in some give-and-take that has never ceased.
During practices, Cooke often stations himself in front of Fleury for deflections and screens, as an opposing player would -- only perhaps a bit more zealously.
"He'll play hard. He'll get in my face," Fleury said. "I think he would get penalties in a game, but still it's fun."
Or maybe it's Fleury who is bending the rules.
"A lot of times I'm the guy standing in front of the net and he's kicking my feet out or whatever," Cooke said. "We go at it pretty good. It's all in good fun."
It also serves a purpose, preparation for games. Cooke won't face many better goaltenders than Fleury, and Fleury isn't exactly treated with kid gloves by opposing players.
The two figure they might as well have a blast along the way.
Cooke likes to throw snow -- ice shavings from the rink surface -- at Fleury, or put them down his shirt once they adjourn to the dressing room. During a lull in a practice at Southpointe last week, Cooke scooped a mound of ice onto the blade of his stick and chased Fleury around the net before finally giving him a dusting. Fleury responded with a squirt from his water bottle.
"That's usual," Fleury said. "He's always trying to get me cold. Maybe because I'm too hot against him and he's trying to cool me off."
Cooke is drawn to Fleury's outgoing personality, one he notes doesn't change even if the team or Fleury is going through a bad stretch. It's the same demeanor when Fleury is helping to carry the team through injuries, such as the past calendar year, or when Fleury is struggling, as he did the first month of the 2010-11 season.
"He's outgoing and embraces the role that he has," Cooke said. "He feels that if he's having fun, he's the best he's going to be in his position. When things start to get serious, he'll do something totally off the wall just to loosen the mood, and that's a good thing.
"He would be the guy that would find a ramp and try to jump 10 feet off of it and do a skateboard kick or something. Just to be goofy. It's often we've said he's not going to get hurt playing; he's going to hurt himself doing something else. Cartwheels or something."
While Cooke is usually the instigator, Fleury isn't above retaliating.
"It's a two-way street," Cooke said. "He does some pranks -- cuts my laces and stuff like that. But when he stops me on the ice, that's his gratification."
No matter how much things escalate, the two enjoy the banter and pranks.
"He sits right behind me on the bus [on road trips], and the chirping continues -- yak, yak, yak," Cooke said. "You look back and see those big chiclets, and it's hard not to smile. No matter what he says, it's hard not to smile."
A respect between the two has grown out of their silliness.
As the players are about to enter the ice for a game, Cooke and forward Pascal Dupuis exchange chest bumps and nudges with Fleury as part of a ritual first started by former Penguins forward Max Talbot.
At the end of each period, Cooke waits for Fleury as the team heads to the runway.
"It goes so much further than fooling around," Cooke said.
But they sure do enjoy the playful part of it.
For much more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Shelly Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org , 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly