Going into the All-Star break, the buzz surrounding the Pittsburgh Penguins is that of a resurgent contender. On the backs of a ‘vintage’ Evgeni Malkin – who has rekindled his 2009 Conn Smythe form – and a breakout 27-goal performance from James Neal, the Penguins hit the beach sitting in 5th place in the Eastern Conference and on a 7-game winning streak. The Penguins strong first half isn’t merely explained by these elite scorers finding their touch – although it certainly doesn’t hurt; Pens’ roleplayers, notably Matt Cooke, have performed at a high level all season.
The one-time ‘dirtiest player in the NHL’ has largely reinvented himself and his style of play. In a recent article written by head-writer Letangueray, Cooke’s attempt at a wholesale change-up in his style is explored in some detail. In 49 games played this season, Matt Cooke has a mere 16 PIMs – miniscule numbers for a player with 100+ PIMs in each of the last three seasons. But despite his best efforts Matt Cooke continues to deal with the jeers and the painful recognition that goes along with being the (one-time) ‘dirtiest player in the NHL.’
In the Penguins final game before the All-Star break, the club visited a hungry St. Louis Blues squad looking to keep pace in the uber-competitive Central Division. Emotions ran high throughout the contest, and the physicality progressed as the game wound down and neared its riveting conclusion. Late in the 3rd, Cooke was forechecking tightly on Blues’ defenseman Barret Jackman when Jackman appeared to swing his body violently into the boards after being pushed in the shoulder by Cooke.
In my honest estimation, Matt Cooke was not guilty of any infraction in the NHL rule book; certainly not a violation of Rules 41 or 48 (Boarding and Head-Hits, respectively). Though the collision initially seemed incriminating for Cooke, upon further viewing it was clear that Jackman was responsible for putting himself in a vulnerable position “immediately prior to or simultaneous with the hit,” as Shanny would so eloquently state.
If you haven’t already seen it, check out the hit below:
Clearly Jackman put himself into the boards awkwardly by turning his body in a ‘non-traditional’ manner while being pushed. Even though the game was tied 2-2 with less than two minutes remaining in the final period, the officials penalized Matt Cooke with a minor infraction for boarding. In what has become an ongoing trend this season, the spectre of Matt Cooke’s past continues to haunt him like some bad secret he might never live down.
Initially Jackman left the ice after plastering himself into the endboards; but in a move that further incensed Penguins fans, Jackman returned to the ice for crucial shifts down the stretch in regulation and overtime. The Penguins were able to eke out a victory due to Fleury’s incredible poise in the overtime, but the point is that Matt Cooke continues to experience what I would describe as ‘biased officiating.’ We’re essentially at the point where Matt Cooke is being punished for a violation that is fabricated by the opposition for the sole purpose of playing off Cooke’s shaky reputation in order to ‘buy’ penalties. Certainly not the most sportsmanlike activity I can think of.
So all of this ultimately raises the question: If he can maintain his current Lady Byng-like trajectory, how long will it take before Matt Cooke is no longer seen as the ‘dirtiest player in the NHL?’
One year? Two year? Five Years? After he retires? … Never?
The answers to those questions remain to be seen, but one thing is abundantly clear. Since the offseason, Matt Cooke has dedicated himself to relearning the game of hockey. Not a brand of hockey filled with malice and disdain for his opponents, but a respectful and clean – yet still physical – brand of hockey.
It really is remarkable that Matt Cooke, of all people, has thus far been able to change the way he approaches the game of hockey, filling true fans of the club with pride for perhaps the first time in his tenure in the Steel City. It’s too bad that we’re the only ones who know that Matt Cooke is indeed a ‘changed’ man.