[Editor's note: Later on Wednesday, Matt Cooke received a four-game suspension for his hit. The suspension came down after we posted this blog entry.]
Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun debate Matt Cooke's latest hit and revisit the Bruins-Canadiens rivalry in advance of tonight's latest clash:
Burnside: Well, the emotion continues to percolate across the NHL, and sometimes that emotion takes on an ugly hue. We saw that again Tuesday night with Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke.
For the second straight game, Cooke was at the epicenter of a controversial hit, this time driving Columbus defenseman Fedor Tyutin headfirst into the glass in Tuesday's 4-1 loss to the Blue Jackets. On Sunday, Cooke and Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin went knee-to-knee. Both plays were penalized and both sparked mild melees with opposing players going after the notorious Cooke.
Cooke is set to have a telephone chat with league officials Wednesday, and many believe Cooke is among the dirtiest players in the NHL. Still, he represents the gray area of what is acceptable and undesirable in the NHL. At his best, Cooke is a valuable asset, disrupting opposing defensemen with a physical forecheck. He is part of the league's best penalty-killing unit. But he's also a polarizing force. Former teammate Bill Guerin was among those who criticized Cooke's now infamous hit on Marc Savard from last season, a hit brought back into focus this week when Savard announced his season was done after another concussion. Tough call for the league. Cooke is a player many teams would want when the playoffs start.
LeBrun: Anton Volchenkov also had a hearing with the NHL on Wednesday and his agent said the Devils defenseman received a three-game suspension for his elbow to the head of Hurricanes forward Zach Boychuk. But the focus around the hockey world last night was certainly on Cooke, who has revealed himself to be the Dale Hunter/Ken Linseman of his generation. Love him if he's on your team, despise him if he's not.
Coaches want players like Cooke to play on the edge, or else they aren't as valuable to the team. Cooke's job isn't to score goals; it's to be a shift disturber and keep the other team on its toes. Having said that, I think he's gone too far over the last year and needs to be reeled in. He went out of his way to make contact with Ovechkin on Sunday, and it was a clear hit from behind last night, even though some people are saying Tyutin turned into him. A suspension should come from the NHL.
Burnside: I think you are right on. I got a chance to sit down with Cooke during the playoffs last season and spoke with his wife about the fallout after the Savard hit. Unfortunately for me, the Penguins blew their 3-2 series lead against Montreal, and I never got around to writing the piece. It is unfortunate because he is a guy who does a lot of charity work, and I think he genuinely felt bad about what happened to Savard. That said, it is the NHL's job to keep players like Cooke on the right side of the line. We'll see if it unfolds as you expect.
To switch gears a bit, I have to bring up the renewal of one of my favorite rivalries in the game, Boston and Montreal. The Habs are 3-0-0 against their Northeast Division rival this season and can pull into a tie for the division lead with a win tonight. They'd better get their slumbering power play going, although the return of James Wisniewski should help. Still, without Mike Cammalleri (shoulder injury), look for this to be a grind-it-out kind of game, the kind of game the Bruins and Habs like to play.
LeBrun: Only two points separate the Bruins and Habs, and both clubs have 30 wins. I'm surprised Boston hasn't pulled away at this point, but Montreal has hung in there, despite injuries to top-four blueliners Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges. That brings me to my next point. While the Bruins and Canadiens will battle on the ice for the Northeast crown, I was told over the weekend that both teams have made similar overtures for the likes of Toronto's Tomas Kaberle and Ottawa's Chris Phillips, among other blueliners. I would guess nearly every team currently sitting in a playoff spot is looking to add a defenseman of some kind, so it hardly makes Montreal and Boston unique.
But the Bruins are also on the lookout for a top-six forward and may be more aggressive than Montreal because of that.
"Ideally, if I can add without subtracting, I will," Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli told me this morning. "And those are two areas [defense and forward] I'd like to improve. Obviously, with Marc down, it's a little more pressing."
Savard's season-ending concussion has opened up cap space for the Bruins, but Chiarelli's biggest asset might be dangling Toronto's first-round pick (the second from the Phil Kessel deal). The Leafs are playing better of late, so it may not end up being a lottery pick, but it still carries some big-time value.
"I will look at all options, and if it means putting that pick in a package, then I will look at it," Chiarelli said.
Interesting times ahead in Boston.
Burnside: Both teams figure to be active at the trade deadline, although with poker-faced Habs GM Pierre Gauthier you never know, do you? The one thing that has impressed me about the Habs, especially since Georges went down, has been the play of P.K. Subban. He's playing with Hal Gill and has really seen his overall game improve.
Funny how Habs coach Jacques Martin has a reputation of not wanting to foist too much responsibility on youngsters. He has Subban playing a lead role on the blue line, along with fellow rookies Yannick Weber and Lars Eller up front and another youngster, Max Pacioretty, on the top line with captain Brian Gionta and Tomas Plekanec. Regardless of who ends up winning tonight's tilt, I can't help but think the hockey gods will align the final standings so we see another Boston/Montreal playoff clash. Can't think of a better way to kick off the postseason.
LeBrun: Well, don't forget, Martin did make Subban a healthy scratch a few times earlier this season, so the learning process had its bumps. But I agree the rookie blueliner is a treat to watch and has taken giant strides of late.
Before we go, I wanted to close things out by mentioning the Buffalo Sabres. Huge 7-4 win against a terrific Tampa Bay Lightning team. The Sabres are now 7-3-0 in their past 10 games and charging hard for that last playoff spot in the East. They were counted out a month ago, but like the Calgary Flames in the West they refused to roll over and die, and all of this comes after losing top offensive force Derek Roy for the season. The Sabres are four points behind No. 8 Carolina with two games in hand. Don't count out the Sabres!