Penguins left winger Matt Cooke made a conscious effort two years ago to change his game, to pare it down from mean and nasty to tough and smart.
It has been a success, with his penalty minutes dropping and his NHL suspensions for blatantly illegal plays falling to, well, none.
But he might never stop fielding questions about his reputation as a dirty player, regardless of whether it's still deserved.
Friday night, he was still being asked about a Feb. 13 incident when his skate blade inadvertently sliced the Achilles tendon of Ottawa defenseman Erik Karlsson -- even though Karlsson and the Senators had just been eliminated by the Penguins, 6-2, in Game 5 at Consol Energy Center.
Asked if perhaps getting through the series without any lingering hostilities spilling into the games was a chance to turn the page, Cooke said, "I hope so."
In the teams' traditional handshake line on the ice that marks the end of a series, Cooke's exchange with Karlsson was brief.
"I just said, 'Great series,' " Cooke said. "That was it."
Cooke successfully ignored the vitriol aimed at him from fans and Senators management -- including owner Eugene Melnyk.
"At the end of the day, it's still a freak accident and I felt terrible about it at the time," Cooke said. "I'm just glad that he's back playing. I didn't expect there to be anything [carrying over] in this playoff series because winning the series is most important."
Cooke carved out some attention for himself in other ways in the series. Friday, that included a prominent role in the opening goal.
The Penguins already seemed to be the more intense team when a savvy play by Cooke set up that goal, in the first period.
He carried the puck into the right circle, with Ottawa defenseman Jared Cowen closing in. It appeared as if Cooke made a decision not to shoot the puck or try to outmaneuver Cowen. He dug his skate blades into the ice, sending up a spray as he curled away from Cowen.
Cooke insisted it wasn't as skillful as it might have looked.
"I actually lost the puck and Cowen skated by it," he said. "I stopped on it."
Cooke sent a cross-ice pass to defenseman Mark Eaton, who was streaming over the blue line and into the opposite circle. Eaton threw the puck toward the net, where Brenden Morrow was waiting.
Morrow -- who returned to the lineup after missing Game 4 because of an unspecified injury -- swiped at the puck, which glanced in off of his skate. An official review determined that he had not used a distinct kicking motion, and the Penguins had a 1-0 lead at 6:25.
"[Morrow] drove the net and Mark was the late guy coming in, the late option," Cooke said. "That was the easiest pass for me. He made a great pass to [Morrow] and it went in the net. It all started with [Jussi Jokinen] chipping it out and putting it behind their defense."
The assist gave Cooke a three-game points streak -- an assist in each of the three games -- which might seem modest, but it matches the longest in the postseason of his career.
"I didn't get any [points] in the first series [against the Islanders]," Cooke said. "Not easy to come by and definitely not the main focus, especially mine, throughout the playoffs. But hopefully I can keep chipping in and helping the offense."
He had a chance to add a goal in the third period. Alone in front of the Ottawa net, the puck came bouncing toward him, but it seemed to be moving in slow motion, and a Senators player got to him before the puck did to thwart the scoring chance.
"The puck seemed to be bouncing on me a lot [this game], especially in [prime] areas, but that's fine," Cooke said. "You want to help chip in, but that isn't the most important thing."
In addition to the assist, Cooke finished the game with two shots, a team-high five hits and two takeaways.
A strong game, but not a thug's night.
Cooke was asked if he is playing his best hockey now -- a pretty good time if so, with the Eastern Conference final upcoming.
"I don't even know how to judge that," Cooke said. "Playoffs are based on team success, and that's what's most important right now. I want to be out there doing everything I can to help our team win, whether that means blocking a shot or [playing on the penalty-kill] or taking a hit to make a play or getting on the scoresheet. I want to be there and support my team."mobilehome - penguins
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. First Published May 25, 2013 4:15 AM