In many ways, Penguins forward Matt Cooke
hasn’t been at all different this season.
Cooke is still a physical force every time he steps on the ice, ranking third among forwards on the team with 135 hits.
Cooke, 33, is still a critical component of the NHL’s No. 3-ranked penalty killing unit (89.3-percent success rate), logging 2:35 shorthanded minutes per game – third among forwards (and only two seconds behind Jordan Staal
Cooke is still a defensively responsible winger that has consistently been matched against opposing team’s top offensive lines.
But in some ways, Cooke is different.
He’s added a little bit of a scoring touch to his game. Cooke set a new career high by scoring his 16th goal of the season March 17 at New Jersey. He also posted four goals in a two-game stretch, while coincidently playing on a line with captain Sidney Crosby
But the biggest difference between Cooke’s on-ice play this season has been his ability to play a more controlled, disciplined style.
Cooke has spent the majority of his career disrupting star players from getting to their game. He played an intense brand of hockey that looked for the big game-changing hit.
However, an unfortunate instance last season caused Cooke to reflect on the way he played the game.
Exactly one year ago, on March 20, 2011, in a game against the New York Rangers, Cooke delivered an elbow to the head of New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh. The NHL suspended him for the final 10 games of the regular season and the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Penguins were eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“The hardest part happened when I got suspended, it was coming to the realization that no matter what I did, if I didn’t change my approach, nothing was going to change because the way that I was playing was to go out and get the biggest hit,” he said. “If I was going to continue to play that way, then the high risk was still there, and I felt like I had to eliminate that.”
With a lot of film study and discussions with the coaching staff, Cooke slowly began to remold his game.
“It’s an ongoing process for me. It was a different process for me,” Cooke said candidly. “It’s never going to be over with. I’m honored. I’m thankful that I’ve had the support I’ve had from my teammates, the coaching staff, management, ownership, the fans, and my family, first and foremost.
“Their help and patience and commitment to me has helped.”
Cooke has managed to maintain his effectiveness on the ice with his physical play and strong defensive capabilities.
“I don’t think that I’m out of that process of trying to maintain some sort of level of physical play as well as trying to help my team,” he said.
And his new disciplined approach has led to a major reduction in his time in the penalty box. Throughout his first 12 years in the NHL, Cooke averaged 100 penalty minutes per 82 games. Cooke topped 100 penalty minutes in each of his first three season in Pittsburgh. Yet astonishingly, this season Cooke has only 30 penalty minutes in 71 games.
Cooke’s dedication to improving himself led the Pittsburgh chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association to nominate him for the 2012 Bill Masterton Award – given “to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.”
Cooke was honored by the recognition.
“It’s different than most people who get recognized. I didn’t have to work through an injury to come back to the league.
“Any of those accolades are great and it’s a huge honor for me. But that’s not my focus.”
Right now, Cooke’s focus is on helping the Penguins finish strong in the regular season and then make some noise in the playoffs – something he was unable to do last season.
“The playoffs are the time to win. It’s when I feel like I’m at my best and most effective,” he said. “To sit up top (in the media level) and not to be able to go out and help – it’s a different situation like Sid and (Evgeni Malkin
), when they were hurt, they couldn’t go – but I was healthy and sitting up there. It was a gut-wrenching feeling. I feel responsible to them. I said from the outset that I wouldn’t put them in that situation again.”
He’s been true to his word.