(Cynical headline alert.)
Matt Cooke(notes) of the Pittsburgh Penguins is well within his rights to skip an optional skate and avoid the media on the day after his knee-on-knee collision with Erik Cole(notes) injured the Carolina Hurricanes winger and ignited the biggest controversy of the conference finals.
But he needs to answer for his actions. Not for his hit on Cole, which was an accident of bodies moving very fast in unfortunate directions. But for setting a standard of enforcement in the Penguins' series against the Washington Capitals that evidently doesn't apply when the brace is on the other knee. From Rob Longley of Slam! Sports, on May 9 regarding Alex Ovechkin's hit on Sergei Gonchar:
Matt Cooke knows what the verdict would be if it were him on the stand today facing what passes for NHL justice.
"If I did what he did, I wouldn't be on the ice," the Penguins forward said last night in the bittersweet aftermath of a critical 5-3 win over the Washington Capitals.
How does he justify his participation in Thursday night's Game 2 then? The Hurricanes are crying foul, and it would appear that they'll be without both Cole and Tuomo Ruutu(notes) for a critical game due to injury.
What the incident has done is create an interesting bit of introspection from Penguins fans and media in light of the Alexander Ovechkin(notes) hit and Cooke's similar check in Game 1 against Carolina. And, of course, open up the NHL for another round of bashing.
Perhaps he's just being a contrarian newspaper columnist, but Ron Cook of the Post Gazette offered an absolutely blistering indictment of Cooke, Penguins fans, Paul Maurice and the NHL this morning:
The same people who screamed about Ovechkin see nothing wrong with what Cooke did, even though he has a reputation for being something of a cheap-shot guy and even though this particular hit left Cole questionable not just for Game 2 tomorrow night at Mellon Arena, but for the rest of the series. Only the Carolina team and its fans were upset. "I just didn't like it," Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice said of Cooke's hit.
Not that Maurice has any right to complain. Maybe Maurice spoke out publicly against one of his players, winger Scott Walker(notes), sucker-punching Boston defenseman Aaron Ward(notes) in the previous playoff round, but, gee, I don't remember seeing that.
Hypocrites, all. That would include your Penguins. Sorry.
Really, the Penguins have no room to gripe, either. You saw forward Chris Kunitz's(notes) cross-check to the neck of Capitals goaltender Simeon Varlamov(notes) in the previous round? That was every bit as vicious as Ovechkin's hit on Gonchar, so brutal that Kunitz admitted he felt lucky that he wasn't suspended.
The NHL could stop all of the gratuitous stuff if it really wanted to do it. All it would have to do is stiffen its punishment. That would change the culture quickly. But the league has no desire to do that.
Hooks Orpik of Pensburgh was level-headed about the Ovechkin play, and offered this assessment of Cooke's hit:
Does Matt Cooke deserve a suspension? I'm not sure. I don't know what his intent was, Cooke is a devious player that always walks the fine line but I've never seen him hunt for someone's knees before. Cooke said the contact was accidental. We haven't heard for sure (it may not yet be known) the extent of Cole's injury, but as we saw in Ovechkin v. Gonchar that didn't seem to be a big consideration in the NHL's decision to suspend.
So now the ball is in the NHL's court. God only knows what they'll decide.
Both critics call out the NHL in this situation and, by comparison, the Ovehckin/Gonchar incident. Which is to say that they're calling out NHL discipline czar Colin Campbell, who sat down for an enlightening chat with Allan Maki of the Globe & Mail regarding supplemental punishment in the postseason and his stressful occupation of choice:
"You love the hockey at this time of year, but then you just dread the controversy," Campbell said. "For us, we sit down and say, 'There's going to be a controversial supplementary discipline. There's going to be a controversial goal review.' No one [outside the league office] mentions how many games we've watched and how we use established criteria. People ask, 'Why don't you use common sense?'
"Listen, our decisions might not be liked and they might not be agreed upon, but at least you have to respect our integrity and experience."
Ask Campbell to explain some of his decisions and you get a grab bag of variables: When the infraction happened, where it happened, the score of the game, the history of the players involved. Considering how it can be made to sound so convoluted, no wonder people stop him and ask: "Why do your suspensions seem so arbitrary? Don't you use common sense?"
The answer, Campbell said, is simple. "There's never one [incident] that's exactly the same. All have their own identity at the end of the exercise."
"At least you have to respect our integrity and experience."
Well, we certainly respect your experience, sir.
None of this is an argument that Cooke should be suspended for the hit on Cole, although we'd love to hear his Pelosi-esque revisionism on his previous statements about such a play. Ovechkin didn't deserve the gate, and neither does Cooke.
But neither did Milan Lucic(notes) of the Boston Bruins. Or Daniel Carcillo(notes) of the Philadelphia Flyers. And while the NHL can claim the extent of a victim's injuries aren't heavily weighed, chances are Donald Brashear(notes) doesn't get six playoff games if he hadn't ended the postseason of the New York Rangers' top penalty killer.
In the end, Cooke is just like Colin Campbell: Setting precedents that at the time seem justified and noble, but that fail to remain so when the wheel of discipline needs another spin for a future infraction.