The Pittsburgh Penguins aren’t about to get too deep into anything having to do with Matt Cooke, unless it’s focusing on the positives the Pittsburgh forward has brought to the table.
Cooke, at least for fans and media alike, is one of the main storylines entering the Eastern Conference final with the Bruins. It was Cooke, of course, who took out Marc Savard in 2010 with a nasty, blind-sided hit, a blow that has helped all but end the Boston forward’s career. Now, as the two teams ready to do battle Saturday, Cooke is once again a focal point.
However, the Pittsburgh agitator is a changed man in the eyes of some. The word you often hear is “reformed.” The hit on Savard was far from Cooke’s sole on-ice transgression, and that’s something that will likely follow him until the end of his career. Cooke, however, only registered 36 penalty minutes in 48 games this season. Some will criticize him for slicing Erik Karlsson‘s Achilles, but the league found no fault with Cooke’s play, which is saying a lot given the league’s propensity for punishing repeat offenders.
The Penguins, at least head coach Dan Bylsma and captain Sidney Crosby, weren’t taking the bait when meeting with the media Thursday. Both raved about Cooke’s ability to not only clean up his game, but to also contribute on a regular basis.
“I think he’s much more responsible out there. I think his play has proved that,” Crosby told reporters following practice Thursday.
“He’s changed,” the head coach started before stopping to recollect his thoughts. “His game and his approach to the game and how he plays has changed significantly since then. I’m not sure if we’re ever gonna get away, if Matt’s ever gonna get away from that reputation in the league, but he’s put a significant amount of hockey in between his last suspension and how he’s played the last couple of years.”
Cooke is seeing time on the Penguins’ third line, no small feat given the incredible depth the Pens have up front. The 34-year-old scored eight goals and added 13 assists this season for a Pittsburgh team that entered the playoffs as the Eastern Conference’s top seed.
“He continues to do that for us and he was a big factor and was one of our best players in the first two rounds playing his game, playing well and playing physically,” Bylsma said.
Cooke’s history with Boston, paired with his ability to get under skin in what could end up being a seven-game series in what’s already an emotionally charged situation, make it all the more likely Cooke is on center stage at some point over the next few weeks. The Penguins are obviously hoping he continues to respond the right way, no matter the response Cooke receives.
“I’m not sure any city or any fans, it’s not in their nature to forget, let it go, turn the page … any of that,” said Crosby. “I don’t think it was a big storyline. I didn’t sense it as much this year from the their fans. If it is any kind of factor in this series, it’s probably going to mean Matt’s playing well and we’re playing well versus the other way around. I don’t think it’s much of a factor.
“I don’t think he needs to talk about that; he’s shown that and proved that. I don’t think you expect them to change based on that, though. I’m sure he doesn’t expect that. That’s the playoffs. It’s pretty typical. He did a great job against Ottawa of blocking all of that out. … That might bring out the best in him.”