VANCOUVER – After his second goal Thursday night, winger Matt Cooke sat on the Pittsburgh Penguins bench. He had an exaggerated look of surprise on his face. He held a glove up to his mouth.
He said the boys were just chirping him. He said if he told us what it was about, we wouldn't understand, anyway. It was an inside joke.
Or was it?
OK, this was not quite The New Matt Cooke. Yeah, he leads the NHL in goals, but with only two through only one night. He isn't going to play at a 164-goal pace for long. He ain't replacing Sidney Crosby(notes).
"I can be real clear that we didn't totally change Matt Cooke into a goal-scorer," coach Dan Bylsma said dryly.
But what Cooke did underscores why the Penguins need him to change. Cooke doesn't have to be known as the dirtiest player in hockey. He can actually play. Reforming him is a safety issue for the rest of the league; it's a practical matter for the Pens.
This was his first real NHL game since March 20, when he put an elbow into the head of New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh(notes), earning a suspension for the last 10 games of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs.
He scored on the power play and shorthanded in a 4-3 shootout victory over the Vancouver Canucks, the defending Western Conference champions, not to mention his former team. He also helped the Penguins' penalty-killing unit, the NHL's best last season, go 3-for-3 against the Canucks' power play, the NHL's best last season. He blocked two shots. He threw two hits – both cleanly. He was plus-1. He took zero penalties.
"That's really where Matt Cooke is an effective player and can be a good player, and the goals tonight are a bonus," Bylsma said.
Cooke has scored 10-15 goals in nine of his past 10 seasons. He was a plus-31 over his past two seasons. He has long been a top pest and penalty killer.
But everyone knows the deal: It doesn't matter how many goals he scores or what his plus-minus rating is or how well he kills penalties. If he screws up again, he's going to be suspended for a long time.
And he should be.
"Obviously he's being really careful on the ice," Letang said, "because everyone is watching him."
Go back to 2009-10. Cooke threw a legal hit on the Boston Bruins' Marc Savard(notes) that was so severe, it helped usher in a rule banning blindside hits to the head and might lead to the end of Savard's career.
Last season, he stuck out his leg on the Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin(notes), drawing a $2,500 fine and a rebuke from the league. Then he hit Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Fedor Tyutin(notes) from behind, earning a four-game suspension.
Then he drilled McDonagh – at a time when Crosby was suffering from a concussion, owner Mario Lemieux was ripping the league about player safety and general manager Ray Shero was calling for zero tolerance on hits to the head. He received the fifth suspension of his career.
When it was announced, Shero took the unusual step of supporting the league by saying in a statement: "We've told Matt in no uncertain terms that this kind of action is unacceptable and cannot happen."
Now the league has broadened the rules governing boarding and illegal checks to the head, and it has a new disciplinarian, Brendan Shanahan, who suspended nine players during the preseason and came down hardest on repeat offenders.
No matter how many clean checks Cooke delivers, it only takes one. One dirty hit, and he's done.
"I want to stay in this league," Cooke said. "I want to play in this league for a long time. It isn't going to be just status quo, and I know that and I understand that, so I'm consciously making the effort."
Cooke said he watched about 30 hours of video with the coaches during his suspension last season, plus about another 15 on his own, trying to figure out how to change his approach. He has to think about what he will do in high-risk situations ahead of time, because the game moves far too fast for him to adjust on the fly.
Teammate Pascal Dupuis(notes) said when the Penguins took a 3-1 series lead on the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round, he could see Cooke getting excited, pushing hard, preparing to play. But then the Pens lost three in a row, and Cooke never got the chance to come back.
"I think he had a good summer to think about that stuff," Dupuis said.
Shanahan has released explanatory videos with each of his suspensions to communicate the new rules and the standard of enforcement to the players. Bylsma said the Penguins have watched each of them and discussed them as a team. Cooke said he has been paying attention, and that it has helped him understand where the line is drawn.
"We're not just brainless hockey players out there chasing a puck," Cooke said. "A lot of guys have the intelligence and the smarts to play in this league, and so any time you can clarify or communicate what's good and what's not, I think it helps the players."
But can Cooke really be helped? Can he really change to the extent that he never, ever slips up, not even once? How can you not be skeptical?
The McDonagh hit had little to do with the new rules. It wasn't about the speed of the game or the size of the pads or anything else we debate these days. He skated toward McDonagh at the red line, stuck up his left elbow and struck McDonagh in the right side of the jaw just after McDonagh played the puck. It was senseless. If that is in a player in the first place, how do you take that out of him?
Even Shero is cautious.
"We've always said with Cookie, the proof will be in the pudding. We'll see how it works out for him," Shero said. "He doesn't have to have eight hits a game. He can have two or three hits a game and some takeaways or whatever. But with his speed, the way he plays, he can get on the forecheck. Guys are going to be rushing their plays, anyway. He might hit you. He might not. You don't know."
"But hopefully it'll be clean."
If there is hope for Cooke, maybe it was there Thursday night – not in the goals he scored, but in his appreciation for playing at all.
"I feel a sense of joy being out there with my teammates and being able to help them play," Cooke said. "If I didn't score two goals tonight and the result was the same, I'd still feel good about what was happening, but it just makes it that much sweeter."
Cooke should remind himself of what he would be missing if he makes another mistake. He was named the second star Thursday night. Usually, visiting players don't come out for the announcement, but Cooke's teammates forced him. He tripped on a TV cable and fell on the ice, and he laughed about it afterward.
"Humility," he said, "is good sometimes."