Metamorphosis of Matt Cooke
In other years, this was a common occurrence for Matt Cooke. This season, "I've been able to avoid the dangerous plays, and that's what I set out to do when I started the season."
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Matt Cooke didn't expect everyone to believe he could change.
Heck, there might have been times when he wasn't entirely convinced that he could. After all, Cooke is 33 years old, and it was easy to suspect that he had too much of a track record of dangerous hits, had been head-hunting for too long, to make an epic adjustment to how he does his job.
And, perhaps, the skeptics will turn out to be correct. Hey, when a guy has played 818 games at this level, a 13-game snapshot isn't much of a sampling.
But as the Penguins prepare to face San Jose tonight at the HP Pavilion, Cooke has put up a few numbers that are difficult to ignore and harder to misinterpret.
- Matchup: Penguins at San Jose Sharks, 10:38 p.m. today, HP Pavilion.
- TV/Radio: Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Antti Niemi for Sharks.
- Penguins: Have eight losses, one tie in past nine visits to San Jose. ... D Kris Letang does not have point in five career games against Sharks. ... Are one of NHL's top faceoff teams, winning 52.8 percent of their draws.
- Sharks: Will be playing at home for first time after 5-1 road trip. ... RW Joe Pavelski has eight goals, more than any two teammates combined. ... Penalty-killing ranks among NHL's worst, with success rate of 73.7 percent.
- Hidden stat: Penguins RW James Neal has gone consecutive games without a goal only once this season.
He enters the game as the Penguins' No. 5 scorer, with four goals and four assists in 13 games. And he has spent all of four minutes in the penalty box, which ties him for 12th on the team.
Bottom line: A guy who entered 2011-12 averaging 3.28 penalty minutes for every point he earned has twice as many points as penalty minutes this young season.
And Cooke's two infractions -- minors for interference and diving -- haven't exactly been of the sort that demands a review by the league office.
That doesn't mean the change is guaranteed to be permanent, which Cooke knows better than anyone. It does suggest that not only is he serious about trying to alter his style, but also has been pretty successful at it.
"So far, so good," Cooke said. "I've been able to avoid the dangerous plays, and that's what I set out to do when I started the season."
Through the first month, opponents have had no reason -- other than his history, of course -- to fear that Cooke would drive an elbow or shoulder into their head, and his coaches haven't had to worry about losing the services of a valuable blue-collar forward to suspension because of a grievous lapse of judgment.
It's no coincidence that Cooke is poised to make a run at his personal best points total of 42, set with Vancouver in 2002-03, although assistant coach Tony Granato suggested there is a downside, perhaps temporary, to the change Cooke has made.
After registering 192 hits -- two fewer than team leader Brooks Orpik -- in 67 games last season, Cooke has 16 in 2011-12, dropping his per-game average from 2.86 to 1.23.
"He still has to have that physical element, finishing checks, figuring out [how] he can do it in a way that's going to help us," Granato said. "I think he's in that process right now, because he certainly hasn't put himself in a position where he has been over-physical.
"That's on the cautious side, obviously, [because of] what's happened in the past. He's done a good job of adjusting that way. Now, it's finding a happy medium, where he can still be physical, still have that part of his game."
Cooke, though, noted that while trying to exorcise the dirty hits from his repertoire has reduced the number of checks he throws, it has allowed him to contribute more in other ways.
"I'm not as physical as I was in the past, but I'm still getting one or two bodychecks a game," he said. "I'm just stealing a few more pucks offensively and, with that and with the injuries we've had, I've been able to play a little more of an offensive role. That's been fun for me."
Being more involved in the offense doesn't seem to have hurt Cooke's effectiveness in most other areas.
Although plus-minus figures can be misleading, it's worth noting that his plus-4 is the best among Penguins forwards. Although his average of two minutes, 27 seconds of short-handed work is second most among the forwards, he has been on the ice for just one power-play goal-against.
Whether Cooke's performance in the early weeks of this season is his best since joining the Penguins in 2008 is conjecture -- he seems partial to some of his work during the playoffs, particularly the '10 series against Ottawa -- but the overall quality of his play definitely hasn't suffered.
"He's had a very good start to the season," Granato said.
That might be part of the reason Cooke seems so happy these days, but the fundamental change he's trying to make is his style is a factor, too.
"I think I enjoy the game a little bit more now," he said. "I don't feel the same pressures now that I did in the past to play a certain way, and that's a good thing."
He knows the issue is not fully settled. That he's not far enough from his past to be sure he has escaped it.
"I was always optimistic about the way it would go, but there was no real proof [before the regular season]," he said. "Like I said back then, I'm not naive to think that just because I'm saying it, it's going to be that way. I have to go out and prove it over a period of time. Things aren't over and done with yet."
• Game: Penguins at San Jose Sharks, HP Pavilion.
• When: 10:38 p.m.
• TV: Root.
• Inside: The Penguins and the art of the poke check.
First Published November 3, 2011 12:00 am