Matt Cooke has changed his game and his mindset. Perhaps in doing so, he has begun to alter the once very negative perception of him around the NHL.
To Cooke, the Pittsburgh Penguins forward who has long had the reputation of being a player with a pronounced edge and nastiness to his game, it's encouraging that he has made others around the League realize he does more than look for the big hit.
What Cooke would most like to do is be a game-changer in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, where he has had mixed success. Cooke's ability to shift roles seemingly from shift to shift -- he can transform instantly from a goal scorer to a blanketing defender -- might just allow him to be an impact player during the postseason.
And these days, "impact" to Matt Cooke doesn't always mean leveling a key player from the opposing team with a seismic hit.
Cooke couldn't play during the Penguins' Eastern Conference quarterfinal-round loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning a year ago following his suspension for elbowing Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh in the head March 20, 2011 -- the final game he would play that season.
That Cooke transgression, which came a year after his blindside shot caused Bruins forward Marc Savard to sustain a concussion, resulted in a 10-game regular season ban that carried over to the first round of the playoffs. Cooke was harshly criticized by the Rangers, the League and his own team -- to the point where the Penguins told Cooke that if he didn't alter his game, he was gone.
So he transformed his game for the positive.
"I always went for the big hit," Cooke said. "Whenever I had a chance to hit, I tried to make it as impactful as I could, trying to stay within the rules. The problem with that is there are a lot of situations during the game where that approach doesn't allow for much room for error. In a hurry, things can go bad."
So, Cooke set about making a change for the good this season. So far, it's been a success; he was recently nominated by the Pittsburgh chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association for the Masterton Trophy, which is presented each season to the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.
"It's a big honor, but I'm focused on other things right now," Cooke said.
Not only are his penalty minutes way down -- from 129 a season ago to less than 50 this season -- his offense is up. He has shattered the 12-goal plateau he reached last season, and he has taken more than 50 more shots than he got off in 2010-11. Installed recently on Sidney Crosby's line -- he has since been moved off -- he had seven goals in six games.
This is Matt Cooke, remember, the same forward who had only a solitary goal in 31 Stanley Cup Playoff games in 2008 and 2009.
"Cookie goes to the net hard," Crosby said, relating how Cooke's willingness to go to the tough areas to try to score goals can be a major asset in a close game.
But it is Cooke's ability to prevent goals that will likely be his most-visible quality in the playoffs. Coach Dan Bylsma has since reinstated him on a line with elite defender Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy that will often go against an opposing team's top scoring line.
Cooke and Staal also are keys to a Penguins' penalty-killing unit that has ranked in the top three in the League most of the season.
If Cooke can contribute some secondary scoring -- as he did while scoring four goals in 13 playoff games in 2009-10 -- he could truly be an X-Factor for the Penguins.
They hasn't advanced past the Eastern Conference Semifinals since raising the Stanley Cup in 2009, but they're looking for a longer run this time after winning 50 games for only the second time in franchise history.
"When we went on that run in 2009, we were a confident group," Cooke said. "We felt like we had a chance to win every game. When you do it over and over again and compile wins, it gives you that confidence, it builds confidence. You believe in your group, and obviously we believe in our group."