PITTSBURGH – Matt Cooke has been in this position before.
Waiting, wondering if one of his transgressions from the previous night will be subjected to supplementary discipline.
Cooke's hit from behind on Boston Bruins defenseman Adam McQuaid had put the Pittsburgh Penguins forward in that situation once again Sunday morning, and he was relieved to learn that he will in fact be eligible to suit up for Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final on Monday night (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS).
"It's a great relief because I want to be on the ice helping my team, not sitting in this dressing room worrying about winning or losing," Cooke said Sunday. "I've been in that situation before and it's no fun. I'm just thankful I can go out [Monday] night and help our team."
Cooke declined to speak to the media Saturday night after the game, but he was front and center Sunday before his team's optional practice to address the hit and give his thoughts on whether or not it warranted the five-minute major penalty and game misconduct he was assessed.
"I chipped the puck in early just after the red line," Cooke said. "I had some interference run from [Bruins defenseman Torey] Krug, which pushed me inside. After I got by him I look up and I see [McQuaid's] right shoulder, and he looks me right in the eyes. I think at the last minute he goes to make a reverse with the puck, but I've committed to hit him. I don't drive him through the boards. I make contact. I think it's a penalty, but I don't think it's an ejection or a suspension. That's my opinion."
The idea that McQuaid's turning away from Cooke contributed to him being hit from behind was not only expressed by Cooke, but by his coach Dan Bylsma as well.
And while McQuaid's own coach Claude Julien didn't exactly blame his own player for being hit from behind, he did suggest in general terms that a player taking a hit bears some responsibility for the result of that hit.
"I've said it before, and I'm certainly not going to change my mind because it happened to one of our players, but I've always said that we have to educate our players to not put themselves in vulnerable positions," Julien said Sunday. "I'm not talking necessarily about [Saturday] night, I'm talking about those kinds of things that are happening right now. Because the rule says you can't hit somebody from behind, sometimes we take advantage of that rule, and it's dangerous."
Julien also essentially agreed with Cooke's assessment of the play.
"I think the referees had to call that," Julien said. "When you see his head going into the boards and numbers on numbers, it had to be called. Whether it's a two-[minute penalty], whether it's a five-[minute penalty], I'm not going to dispute that. But more than that, I think they had to make the call…
"I'll be honest with you, I have no issues if he's not suspended because I'm not convinced it's a suspendable thing, but I'm certainly not going to say that the referees didn't make the right decision, because I think they did in assessing the penalty."
Cooke was forced by the Penguins organization to change the way he played two years ago, removing the questionable hits from his game as he has undergone a transformation to a player who is penalized far less and has become a key contributor as a hard checker and penalty killer.
Still, Cooke hasn't been able to shake his reputation, and it comes back to haunt him in situations like this one. Earlier this season, Cooke was attempting to pin Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson against the boards when his skate came down on the back of Karlsson's leg, lacerating his Achilles tendon. While the play appeared to be a case of an unfortunate accident with devastating consequences, Cooke was still suspected by some to have done it intentionally.
"I definitely think he has made an effort," said Penguins defenseman Paul Martin. "He's not out there trying to hurt guys. He's just trying to establish the physical play and be smart with it."
Cooke, however, rejected the idea his past history as a player with multiple suspensions on file may have contributed to how the call was made on the ice.
"I don't believe in that at all," Cooke said. "I think the referees are trying to do the best job to call the game. Initially it looked like [McQuaid] was maybe hurt, but he played a shift after that. I think that probably affected their decision as well."
McQuaid actually did not play the next shift, but he did indeed return to play after missing about eight minutes of game time. Initially, McQuaid went down after taking the hit, got back up and went back down to the ice when the Boston trainer came out. He skated to the dressing room under his own power and was back on the bench within minutes, though he skipped a shift or two before finally re-entering the game just before the midway point of the second.
He played a regular shift from that point.
McQuaid, who sustained a concussion March 29, 2012 that knocked him out for the rest of the regular season and the Stanley Cup Playoffs, said Sunday he "pretty much" took the brunt of the impact on his forehead.
"I was a little bit shocked, not expecting the play," McQuaid said of his initial reaction to the hit. "It was just kind of [to] find your bearings, I guess."
McQuaid was also asked about the theory that he might have put himself in a vulnerable position by turning away from Cooke as he was bearing down on him.
Upon hearing the question McQuaid smiled a little and said, "I don't think anyone wants to put themselves in a position like that."
After the game Saturday, Penguins captain Sidney Crosby suggested that having to kill off the final three minutes of Cooke's major penalty played a role in halting Pittsburgh's momentum. However, other than the fact players like Crosby and Evgeni Malkin generally don't see time on the penalty kill, Crosby's teammates didn't agree with that assessment when asked about it Sunday.
"I don't think that had much to do with the game," said forward Brenden Morrow. "It's tough missing [Cooke], he's a great competitor for us, but I think we did OK killing off that penalty."
Morrow, Cooke's regular linemate on Pittsburgh's third line with Brendan Sutter, said he doesn't believe all the chatter about the hit will bother Cooke.
But he did also concede that Cooke might need to be a little more careful the next time he's in a similar situation.
"It doesn't matter who he's playing, he doesn't mind that role," Morrow said. "He plays hard, that's what we need him to do, to play on the edge and compete hard.
"Maybe there's a little bit too hard."
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