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Penguins concur on suspension, Cooke apologizes

by Brian Hunter
With the continued focus on head hits and the call to increase punishment for repeat offenders coming out of last week's General Manager Meetings, the supplementary discipline handed out to Pittsburgh Penguins forward Matt Cooke's for an elbow to the head of New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh in Sunday's game came as little surprise.

Cooke, who received a five-minute elbowing major and game misconduct on the play, was suspended by the League on Monday for the final 10 games of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs, a decision with which even his own team could not find fault.

"The suspension is warranted because that's exactly the kind of hit we're trying to get out of the game," Penguins GM Ray Shero said in a statement. "Head shots have no place in hockey. We've told Matt in no uncertain terms that this kind of action on the ice is unacceptable and cannot happen. Head shots must be dealt with severely, and the Pittsburgh Penguins support the NHL in sending this very strong message."

"I'm fortunate Ryan McDonagh wasn't hurt," Cooke told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "I don't want to hurt anybody. That's not my intention. I know that I can be better.

"I made a mistake. I'm the one that's accountable for that. I take full responsibility for it. I'm sorry to my teammates, my management, my coaching staff and my organization. It's something that, moving forward, I'll make different."

The Penguins were already preparing themselves for life without Cooke before the NHL announced its suspension of the veteran forward late Monday afternoon.

Speaking after the team's morning skate at Joe Louis Arena, where the Penguins were set to face the Detroit Red Wings on Monday night in a rematch of the 2008 and 2009 Stanley Cup Finals, coach Dan Bylsma addressed the expected loss of Cooke.

"Matt adds a lot to our team when he plays within the rules," Bylsma said. "He's a presence in the offensive zone. The biggest adjustment is on the penalty kill. He plays a major role for us there in blocking shots. He's a big part of our success 3-on-5 or 4-on-5, so it will be an adjustment."

Unfortunately for the Penguins, keeping Cooke playing within the rules has often been a challenge. He had been suspended three times before Monday -- including for four games earlier this season after a hit from behind on Columbus defenseman Fedor Tyutin -- and his status as a repeat offender had to carry weight after general managers came back from last week's annual meetings in Florida vowing to do more in deterring dangerous hits.

"It's a learning curve," Bylsma said. "Especially for Matt Cooke (because) he's played on the edge physically and been an effective player playing that way, and now a lot of him is re-thinking where he can hit and be effective. He's not been all that comfortable with that situation. Again (Sunday) the result was a clear illegal hit to the head."

Checking forward Craig Adams didn't mince words when asked to comment earlier Monday about the potential for a Cooke suspension. The Penguins have battled all sorts of injuries this season, beyond just Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and now must deal without the services of another forward who played key minutes in a variety of situations.

"What puts us is a tough spot is when he misses games. That puts us in a tough spot," Adams said. "He's a great player, and people don't realize how good of a player he is … if you don't watch him play every night, you don't know. We know. I'm more concerned with him missing time, and you're obviously concerned with potential for serious injury whether it's somebody on your team or another team."

With a concussion sidelining Crosby for over two months now, the Penguins understand the serious nature of head hits as well as anyone and so there wasn't much in the way of sympathy for Cooke's plight.

"You're right there in the sense that it's a head shot, and as an organization we've been outspoken about it recently," Adams said, in part referencing comments made by team owner Mario Lemieux. "You don't want to see head shots, whether it's a teammate or somebody else doing it to you. That's why he's in Toronto [for the League hearing] right now."

The Penguins temporarily took the lead against the Rangers following Cooke's penalty on a shorthanded goal, but later gave up a pair of power-play tallies in a 5-2 defeat. They entered Monday's game fourth in the Eastern Conference with 90 points, six behind the Flyers for the Atlantic Division lead.

"It's disappointing to see that kind of hit on that situation, given the timing and the circumstances," Bylsma said. "That's a hit we don't want in the game."

In their first game without Cooke, the Penguins blew a 4-0 lead but managed to escape Joe Louis Arena with a 5-4 shootout win against the Red Wings. Staal, who had a pair of assists for Pittsburgh, is hopeful the Pens' gritty forward will learn from his mistakes.

"Cookie's an awesome guy and we love him in the room," Staal said. "He knows himself that he's got to find a way to play on the edge like he can, but do it clean.

"It's a hole in our lineup, but at the same time it's something that has to be dealt with. It's a hit that we don't want in the game and as a group, we know that the League's going to deal with it accordingly and we'll take it from there." correspondent Brian Hedger contributed to this report.

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