| The Vancouver Canucks season has been a tale of two halves - a slow start followed by a fantastic finish. The same can be said about Matt Cooke's campaign. |
It was a struggle early for the feisty 28-year-old winger who has become one of the Canucks best and most-consistent players since Christmas.
Cooke, who set up both Canucks goal in Saturday's 3-2 loss to Calgary and who played the 500th game of his National Hockey League Career last week in Los Angeles, is playing as complete a game these days as he has since he was asked to fill the big skates of Todd Bertuzzi at the end of the 2003-04 season. And just like the team he's a big part of, Cooke is having fun at the rink these days - something that wasn't always the case when the goals and wins were hard to find earlier in the year.
"Yeah, in the statistical part of the game, it's been better in the second half there's no question. You know, a lot of things went through my head in the off-season and maybe I let it get away from myself a little bit on the ice and I take full responsibility for that," Cooke said in a candid interview in the Canucks locker room on Sunday. "When you're not getting points, you have no confidence and the last thing you want is time with the puck. You want to get it off your stick as fast as you can and make it someone else's issue."
"Since Christmas, I want the puck. I want it all the time and maybe to a fault. I'm yelling at Mo sometimes to give me the puck because I know that I feel confident with it and I'm trying to make plays and that's something that as a player you can't overlook because it's so huge."
The numbers don't lie. In the first 35 games of the season, Cooke scored just one goal, set up six others and was buried near the bottom of the team at -14. In the 42 games since Christmas, however, he has seven goals, 13 assists and more impressively, and more importantly, is +11. And it's those numbers - particularly the last one - that have earned the Cooker' more of role in the eyes of the man that matters most, head coach Alain Vigneault.
"Early on I was playing eight and 10 minutes a game and I think since Christmas I've been averaging over 16, and whenever you're given a bigger responsibility you look for that," he explains. "I got a chance to play with Mo and Nazzy a little bit there right after Christmas and we had some success and then Mo and I have kind of clicked since and we've stayed together since Christmas. And I think it's just that familiarity of playing with the same centreman."
One of the key traits both Cooke and Morrison possess is speed. The two skate so well and it allows them to move out of their own zone quickly and attack the other team's blueline putting opposing defenders on their heels. And having been teammates for so long, there's an understanding of each other's game.
They'll never have that sixth sense' that the Sedins seems to possess that allows them to read off each other, but then again, Cooke and Morrison don't share the same DNA.
"Mo knows that if he has to give up the puck that I want to go get it back. And most times I'm able to do that because he's putting it in a spot where I'm able to get a body or it's going to come right to me and I'm able to fend a guy off. We look for each other out there," Cooke says. "Back in '01-'02 it was Mo, Schaef (Peter Schaefer) and I and then obviously a little there when Bert was suspended, I played with Mo and Nazzy. We play well together. We've killed penalties almost my whole career together, the two of us have been out together. I think it's the communication level and it's also just being on the same page all the time."
Matt Cooke knows his improved play of late couldn't have come at a better time. The Canucks will need him to continue to produce in the playoffs and, while he'll never be a candidate for the Rocket Richard trophy as the league's leading goal scorer, Cooke has shown an ability to put pucks in the net in the post-season. He scored both Canuck goals including the dramatic last-second tying marker in Game 7 against Calgary in the spring of '04. And with eight post-season goals to his credit, Matt Cooke trails only Trevor Linden (32), Bryan Smolinski (20) and Markus Naslund (9) in terms of playoff production among his current teammates.
"It's funny because my wife usually bothers me about the blowout games, I usually get no points and it's because I have a tough time playing in those games. But in the tight, close, hard-fought games, those are the games that I try to push myself," Cooke says of his love for playoff hockey.
With his early season struggles now a thing of the past, Matt Cooke can't wait for the post-season to begin. And the Canucks are hoping his recent run of strong play is a sign of things to come throughout April and into May - and maybe even into June, as well.
Jeff Paterson is a Team 1040 broadcaster and a regular contributor to the Georgia Straight. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org