When Pittsburgh and Philadelphia started brawling late in the regular season, Flyers assistant coach Craig Berube called the Penguins' Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin "the two dirtiest players on their hockey team." He never mentioned Matt Cooke, who just one year ago was widely considered the dirtiest player in hockey.
When the rivals went off the rails Sunday in Game 3 of their first-round playoff series, they combined for 158 penalty minutes. Cooke did not receive a single one. Until late in the regular season, Cooke had more goals (19) than minor penalties (18). He still finished with only 22 minors – or only 44 penalty minutes, a dramatic drop for someone who had 100-plus PIMs three years in a row.
Since the start of the 2011-12 season, Cooke has never received a major, never received a misconduct, never received a fine, never received a suspension. He has been remarkably clean.
And he knows that doesn't mean he is clean now.
"Obviously I'm happy with where things are at and how my game's been throughout the course of this season, but it's a work in progress," said Cooke before the Pens-Flyers series began. "It doesn't stop. Coming into next year, it's not like I can just go back."
As NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan continues to wade into his first playoff run, know that Cooke is the prime example of how the supplemental discipline system has worked and can work going forward. It takes stiff punishments and education together. The league has to get the players' attention, and the players have to pay attention.
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The NHL needs to get to the point where the risk of an illegal play clearly outweighs the potential reward – where it's just not worth crossing the line, even though the fans are roaring for blood and the coaches want checks finished and the emotion is high and the Stanley Cup is at stake. The league has to scare 'em straight and then help them toe the fine line. The players have to take responsibility and make the effort to change.
And we have to realize it's a work in progress. It's always a work in progress. It doesn't stop.
"It's always refreshed in your mind and re-installing that new approach," Cooke said. "I played so long – my whole life – the other way that I think it's going to be a constant thing. I'm fine with that. I'm up for that challenge."
Cooke was suspended by Shanahan's predecessor, Colin Campbell, for the Penguins' final 10 regular-season games and the first round of the playoffs last year. He had thrown an elbow into the head of the New York Rangers' Ryan McDonagh, and he had done it at a time when his owner had been vocal about violence in the game and the general managers were supporting stiff suspensions – especially for repeat offenders. He had a long rap sheet. This one was easy.
The suspension hurt Cooke. It also hurt the Penguins, who already were without Crosby and Malkin because of injuries. Privately, the Pens believe they might have won their first-round series with the Tampa Bay Lightning had Cooke been in the lineup. He was a key component of the league's top penalty-killing unit.
The league made it clear to Cooke that next time his punishment would be even more severe, and the Penguins made it clear to Cooke he was on thin ice with them, too. He got the message. He came to Jesus. He flew to New York to meet with Shanahan before training camp and kept in touch with Shanahan early in the season. Shanahan sent him videos, and the Penguins' coaching staff showed Cooke plenty of video, too.
Cooke was just plain scared. No question. He didn't want another suspension. On Jan. 24 in St. Louis, Cooke received a minor for boarding Blues defenseman Barret Jackman. He hadn't touched Jackman, who had taken a dive. (Confirmed that, by the way.) Still, it looked bad, and he knew it. He went pale.
"For 24 hours, I was worried about getting a call from the league," Cooke said. "Thankfully, Shanahan saw it the way that it happened, and there was nothing against me. That kind of put me into a I-can't-touch-anybody state again, and I kind of didn't hit anybody."
Cooke was tentative much of the season, but this is where the education part comes in. It's not just what not to do. It's also what to do. We want good, hard, intense physical hockey, not just skating and scoring and fancy-pants plays, and Cooke needs to be a good, hard, intense, physical player to bring full value.
"He approaches the game out of necessity and circumstance," said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma. "He approaches the game differently than he did previous years in his career. It has changed with what happened with Matt at the end of last year, and that isn't the whole story.
"He had to relearn his approach to the game. He had to relearn how to hit, be physical, and that wasn't seamless. It didn't happen just in watching video, and it didn't just happen in learning a different skill. It happened throughout the year this year, and it was still a working process through 40 or so games."
Cooke has learned how to evaluate the situation before delivering a hit, from video and experience. He has learned to look for little things. On the forecheck, if he sees a defenseman turn face-first to the boards, he needs to tap the guy's stick and ride his hips. If a lefthanded opponent is skating up the right side, the tendency is to turn face-first to the boards, so Cooke had better be aware that it could happen in case it does happen.
"In the past, I always just approached it to go for the biggest hit possible," Cooke said. "Last second, 'Oh, it's going to get ugly,' maybe, and try and pull out. It doesn’t work. On the fly, you can't decide like that, after committing to go that way. …
"So it's being physical, but not trying to crunch them. Just body up against them into the boards."
Cooke felt he found the right balance over the last 20 games of the regular season. When the hits are there, he's delivering them. When they're not, he's not being reckless. When the intensity boils, he doesn't boil over. Amid the mess of Game 3 on Sunday, he had a chance to drill Flyers star Claude Giroux. He passed it up.
When Shanahan was named the NHL's senior vice-president of player safety and hockey operations, he wanted to come down hardest on repeat offenders. But mostly he wanted to change player behavior through education, doing everything from warning players on the phone, to meeting with teams in person, to explaining suspensions via video. You can question individual decisions and their overall consistency, but not the consistency of his approach, philosophy or effort.
There seemed to be progress in the regular season. The problem now is that we're into the playoffs, and while Cooke has kept his head, others have lost their minds. The players are pushed to the edge by all kinds of forces – from their bosses to the charged atmosphere itself – so it's almost inevitable that they're going to go over it at times. Things can escalate quickly.
That's why the officials must do a better job of diffusing things on the ice, and that's why Shanahan has to ratchet up the punishments along with the intensity while otherwise sticking to his principles and his plan.
The debate lately is less about what is legal and illegal – that has been fairly well established – but what the price should be for an illegal act. Shanahan doesn’t need to justify any new standard. He can simply say he has to adjust to the circumstances, and so do the players.
Yeah, they'll do anything to win, but they need to remember there's one thing worse than losing. It's not playing at all, because you were injured by a dirty hit or because you were suspended for delivering one.
"This is why we play 82 games," Cooke said. "This is the reason we all play, to win the Stanley Cup. This is the first chance I've gotten in the last two years to play in the playoffs and help my team. That's the most important thing."
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