Cross Checks: Matt Cooke
The two players didn’t know each other.
But knowing that Kaleta faced an in-person hearing with Brendan Shanahan the next day, Cooke wanted to let Kaleta know that he knew how he felt.
The real reason Cooke wanted to say hi was he had a message for him.
"I laid it out there that if he wants to know what I did, I’d gladly talk to him about it," said Cooke, the NHL’s poster boy as proof former repeat offenders can reform. "He knows Pommer, so I told him `If you want to get hold of me, I’m there to talk.’"
In the 2010-11 season, Cooke was suspended for the final 10 regular-season games and the first round of the playoffs for an elbow to the head of the New York Rangers' Ryan McDonagh. But Cooke returned to the game a changed player. It’s the challenge that now faces Kaleta after his 10-game suspension Tuesday, the biggest one of his career, one which resulted from an illegal check to the head of Jack Johnson. (As I expected, Kaleta is appealing the suspension, his agent Anton Thun confirmed.) If Kaleta is ever called on the carpet again, it’s going to be an even bigger whopper; so this is it for him, adjust your game or else.
It’s not easy, but it’s doable, Cooke said.
"During my suspension, with either [Dan] Bylsma or [Tony] Granato, I probably watched about 30 or 40 hours of video; watching players that play a physical style," Cooke recalled.
"The hours of video work I did seriously helped me," he added. "The work that I put in has helped me not only take the risky plays out but also become a more effective player. I’ve got a way more active stick on the forecheck, and I’m more aware of my surroundings, which has helped me offensively."
He indeed returned a transformed player in 2011-12, colleague Scott Burnside documenting it that season. But it wasn’t easy. Cooke remembers that season when a player dove into the boards after he barely touched him.
"My heart was racing," Cooke said. "I thought I was getting suspended. But before I was even off the ice Brendan [Shanahan] had called [Penguins GM] Ray Shero to tell him he knew I didn’t touch the guy. That reassured me."
With time, Cooke grew more confident in the way he approached the game.
"It’s never going to be over for me, and I realize that, and I’m fine with that," Cooke said. "Right now, I err on the side of caution. I still watch video to reassure that there are good times to go out and be physical. ...
"It’s just a read. If you don’t change the way you visually see the game, then change is impossible."
He’s been a welcome addition in Minnesota after signing with the Wild as a free agent in July.
"Matt brings so much to the table for us," Wild head coach Mike Yeo told ESPN.com Wednesday. "We were looking for a physical player who could play in a checking role and provide some secondary scoring. Those players are hard to find, and he has brought it all. It says an awful lot about him that he has been able to adjust his game. Some guys would be unwilling, some would be willing but incapable. He is a smart guy."
Former NHL GM Craig Button, now an analyst for TSN and the NHL Network, said the Penguins’ management deserved great credit for helping rehab Cooke as well as Shanahan for working with the player. And he said Cooke remains an effective player.
"A smart, good skating player who can read plays," Button said. "He is a strong penalty killer and can make good offensive plays. He is a determined player who gets involved and is one who can contribute in those areas that are not flashy but incredibly important to winning. The Penguins PK has been very good a number of times in terms of ranking and he was a big part of that. So he brings all those qualities [to Minnesota] without any of the dangerous part and that makes him a valuable and contributing member of a team."
Cooke leads the Wild in scoring with six points (3-3) in seven games and has yet to pick up a penalty minute this season.
"There’s a huge difference in the way I approach the game now. The days of just going for the big hit, every time possible, is just not feasible," Cooke said. "The way the game is played now, the speed of the game, and the way the kids are taught to play the game."
He then recalled a play Monday night in Buffalo, a "close one," as Cooke put it, with Sabres defenseman Mike Weber.
"Weber turned his back last second, I bear hugged him and we smashed into the boards," Cooke said. "I tried not to hit him but I still did because he turned at the last second."
The point being, that even with all the best intentions, the game is 100 miles per hour, and sometimes it’s hard to react in time to avoid a scary play.
But Cooke believes that with the way he approaches the game now, he’s cut down on the number of situations that could get him into trouble.
"If it’s reasonably low risk that I can go in and get a decent hit and not worry anything bad will happen, then I will," he said. "That’s not to say anything bad won’t ever happen, but the odds of anything bad happening are totally different."
Let's end this week of questions with a lightning round, and that's not a reference to the team based in Tampa. Here we go. Give us your biggest question for 2013-14 in the comments section.
Daniel Alfredsson in Detroit: Does Alfredsson, 40, have enough left in the tank to make a difference in the Motor City? He will get every opportunity to prove he was worth the gamble by the Red Wings and will do his darndest to win a Stanley Cup and prove the Senators were messing with him all those years.
Vincent Lecavalier in Philadelphia: Lecavalier, 33, isn't as washed up as some people believe. It just feels like he's been in the league forever because he started so young. He has won a Stanley Cup and will be similarly motivated to show people he still has something left. But he won't be as good as the Flyers need him to be or as Flyers fans expect him to be (tough crowd), especially while carrying a $4.5 million cap hit.
Ray Emery in Philadelphia: Montreal, Toronto and Philly are the toughest markets on goalies. Emery, 30, will do well but won't live up to lofty expectations. Again, tough market. Two reasons he could prove me wrong: He's still got a lot of hockey left in him, and he's on a one-year deal at a reasonable $1.65 million.
Jaromir Jagr in New Jersey: Jagr, 41, loves the game, and it's loving him right back. But can you imagine him thriving while playing for Lou Lamoriello? Neither can I.
David Clarkson in Toronto: Man, tough go there. Clarkson, 29, says Wendel Clark was his idol growing up and many Leafs fans are going to want a similar level of play. No disrespect intended, but Clarkson is a solid 15- to 20-goal scorer at his top end who will be a $5.25 million cap hit in his first season. He's no Wendel Clark (few are).
Matt Cooke in Minnesota: Not going to work. Cooke, 34, is not a good value at $2.5 million, especially on that team.
Andrew Ference in Edmonton: Ference, 34, still has some game left in him and is the kind of defenseman the Oilers have been seeking for years. He will help that young dressing room hit the mature button a lot sooner than it would have without him. This is a great move for the Oilers.
Valtteri Filppula in Tampa: Filppula, 29, will have the same cap hit on the Lightning ($5 million) as Ryan Kessler does for the Canucks and James Neal does for the Penguins. Which player would you rather spend that cash on?
Nathan Horton in Columbus: If his shoulder surgery heals properly, Horton could be a catalyst for the Blue Jackets. The biggest issue will be to see how he adapts to not having Milan Lucic and David Krejci making room for him every game.
Jarome Iginla in Boston: Iginla, 36, will like being in the Eastern Conference, with all its relatively cushy travel, and is one of the best guys in all of sports. But, sadly, it appears his better days are behind him, so a $6 million cap hit is outright robbery.
Dustin Penner in Anaheim: Penner, 30, was a frequent healthy scratch with the Kings last season, is on a one-year contract and could be on his way to further marginalization if he doesn't step it up.
Mike Ribeiro in Phoenix: Ribiero, 33, is on his third team in three seasons and clearly wants to show what he's capable of when not playing one the same side as the most talented winger in the game (Alex Ovechkin, by the way). It is an odd choice, though, considering that the Coyotes' lack of talent likely will result in lower numbers. Still, it's nice to see a team owned by the league support the PA with such a crazy-good contract ($5.5 million cap hit) for a player who has topped 80 points just once.
Michael Ryder in New Jersey: Ryder, 33, is usually good for 30 goals every season, which means he'll probably get 25 on the Devils. He's on his fourth team in five seasons, though, which is a concern.
Viktor Stalberg in Nashville: Stalberg, 27, wasn't going to get that kind of coin ($3 million cap hit) from the Blackhawks, but he is talented and has a chance to show his former team that he would have been worth it by signing with a team in the same division. He'll put up decent numbers with lots of ice time.
Stephen Weiss in Detroit: People likened Weiss to Steve Yzerman when he broke into the league, so this is a full circle of sorts. Weiss, 30, should fit well into the Red Wings' way of thinking. GM Ken Holland doesn't spend that kind of money ($4.9 million cap hit, fourth on the team) very often, so you know he's scoped this out from all angles.
The free-agent class of 2013 might lack the star quality of last summer, when Ryan Suter and Zach Parise captivated the hockey world right through Independence Day -- spoiling picnic plans from coast to coast -- but what this year’s crop lacks in profile, it more than makes up for in motivation.
This year’s group of potential free agents is chock-a-block with players looking to make a statement, looking to prove a point and looking for one last chance at redemption.
Herein, then, Team Redemption:
Easily the most intriguing character on the free agency landscape, Thomas is a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, a Conn Smythe winner and a Stanley Cup champion. He also allowed his personal political views to sour his relationship with the Boston Bruins. The 39-year-old hasn’t played a meaningful game since Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals in 2012, having taken last season off to ruminate. So, of course, teams are chasing after him. With a suddenly very tight goaltending market, thanks to Vancouver’s trade of Cory Schneider to New Jersey and the signing of Mike Smith in Phoenix, Thomas’s value might be out of whack with reasonable on-ice expectations, but that’s the way of the NHL. Philadelphia is looking for goaltending help, as are the New York Islanders. It would be too much to expect the Canucks to sign Thomas just to reunite the tire-pumping society of the 2011 Stanley Cup finals, but wherever he goes, Thomas is going to be a top-level story. Just not sure he’ll be a top-level goaltender.
The longtime Islander netminder is the backup on our all-redemption team. Bought out of his ridiculous contract by the Isles this week, DiPietro will be looking for a place to prove that he’s not just the punch line to an oft-told joke. Hip injuries and other ailments have conspired to keep DiPietro off the ice for all but 50 games since the 2008-09 season. Hard to imagine a team would spend a one-way contract on the former first-overall draft pick who has never lived up to his billing or his monster contract to which owner Charles Wang signed him after the last lockout. But it’s not hard to see DiPietro signing a two-way deal somewhere and trying to work himself back into NHL shape at the American Hockey League level. Either way, it's a fascinating story should DiPietro find a team willing to open a door on a last chance at an NHL career.
Honorable mentions: Evgeni Nabokov, Ray Emery
The seventh-overall pick in the 2001 draft played just four games for the Toronto Maple Leafs last season, was eventually banished to the AHL and finally bought out by the Leafs. But there was a time when the easy-going, well-spoken Komisarek was a bona fide front-line defenseman with a physical edge. Now, has time passed by the 31-year-old? No question, he handled the situation in Toronto with as much grace and professionalism as could be expected, and he’s highly motivated to prove he still has game left. It's hard to believe there wouldn’t be a fit with the always frugal New York Islanders, and given that Komisarek is from Long Island, it would seem a good place in which to begin the rebuilding process.
It feels like it has been long time since Whitney was part of an emerging Pittsburgh team that advanced to the 2008 Stanley Cup finals against Detroit. The next season, though, he was gone to Anaheim in the deal that brought Chris Kunitz to Pittsburgh. From there, he was moved to Edmonton, and after a couple of injury-plagued, unhappy seasons, Whitney is now an unrestricted free agent. Rumors had Whitney, a member of the 2010 U.S. Olympic team, headed to Boston at the trade deadline, but that never panned out. The Bruins have loads of depth on the back end and parted ways with veteran Andrew Ference for that reason. But if Whitney is healthy -- a big if, given his ongoing ankle issues -- he still has offensive up-side and is a big body. He chipped in 13 points in 34 games for the Oilers last season, and one would imagine that he would be highly motivated wherever he ended up this summer.
Honorable mentions: Tom Gilbert, Jonathan Blum
While former Tampa captain Vincent Lecavalier garnered most of the buyout attention in the days leading up to free agency -- before he signed a four-year deal with the Philadelphia Flyers -- former flyer Briere might be the most intriguing center on the market. Briere was bought out by the Flyers, and after a disappointing final season in Philadelphia where he scored just six times, the skilled pivot is still commanding significant interest and might end up signing before July 5. While his durability will be an issue, Briere remains the kind of player who can assist on the power play and would fit in nicely in any dressing room. Most intriguing for teams like Nashville or Montreal is that he is one of the most productive playoff performers of his generation, with 109 points in 108 playoffs games.
Honorable mentions: Derek Roy, Scott Gomez
RIGHT WINGBrad Boyes
Seems like a lifetime ago that the touted Boyes was the subject of a documentary by Leafs TV during his first training camp with the Toronto Maple Leafs. After being selected 24th overall in 2000, Boyes has struggled to find a permanent NHL home. It looked like Long Island might be that place after he signed there before last season and picked up 35 points in 48 games, playing often with John Tavares and Matt Moulson. But the team and Boyes couldn’t get together on a contract extension. Boyes hits the open market again and will be hoping that teams take notice of his recent production. Although he’s already had one tour of duty with the Bruins (he scored 26 goals there in 2005-06), their needs on the right side might make him an attractive option to slot in with David Krejci and Milan Lucic, given his success playing with top-end talent on the Islanders.
Honorable mentions: Michael Ryder, David Clarkson
LEFT WINGMatt Cooke
With Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero locking up key personnel Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz in recent weeks, the one incumbent who might be left out in the cold is Matt Cooke. Cooke was among the most consistent performers for the Penguins on their run to the Eastern Conference finals this spring, and in spite of his checkered past, has remade himself into a valuable player, who brought physicality and top-end penalty killing while chipping in offensively. The question remains, can he be that player somewhere else? Cooke remains such a polarizing figure outside of Pittsburgh (Boston broadcaster Jack Edwards compared Cooke to killer Sirhan Sirhan late in the regular season), one wonders how it might effect Cooke’s marketability.
Honorable mentions: Brenden Morrow, Ryane Clowe
There's always a lot of hocus-pocus when a team is down 3-0 in a best-of-seven series, and while Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma acknowledged "it's not a very encouraging picture," it was still interesting to hear Bylsma liken the situation to winning the gold medal at the Olympics.
Teams that win gold have to win four elimination games. They don't have to win them all at once and not all against the same team, but it's a process, one step leading to the next.
"In the Olympics to win a gold medal for Canada, they've got to win four games, four elimination games, Germany, Russia, Slovakia and U.S. Those are games that you have to win to go on, and that's what we're at right now," Bylsma said. "We don't have to win four games against the Boston Bruins, we have to win one game [Friday] night to move on to Game 5 to get this thing back to the 'Burgh, and that's what we have to look at, not the numbers, not the odds, not the four wins. We have to look at winning one hockey game, 60 minutes [Friday] night."
The Pens players with comeback experience include forward Pascal Dupuis, who was with the Minnesota Wild when the Wild twice erased 3-to-1 deficits in the 2003 playoffs, once against a Vancouver Canucks team for which current teammate Matt Cooke played.
"That's the closest thing. Once, against Matt in Vancouver," Dupuis said. "As far as numbers and odds and everything like that, every year is different. If you ask [the Bruins], they were up 3-0 a couple years ago, and they lost. So it's numbers, different players, everything is different about this one."
Cooke said he has seen a lot of different situations in his career and he prefers to think small picture.
"Personally, I think being in all different types of situations in the playoffs, and I've said this in the last two series, it always becomes about the next game and the next game is the most important, and you quickly have to move forward," Cooke said. "There's a lot of belief in our dressing room and the group that we have and what we've accomplished, and right now it's about Game 4 and that's it."
• Bylsma said there was no doubt in his mind there was a hook by Jaromir Jagr on Evgeni Malkin in the moments leading up to Patrice Bergeron's game winner late in the second overtime period in Game 3 Wednesday night. But ...
"I'm not sure at that point in the game I thought for one second, with how the game was being called, that I expected a call at all on the play," he said.
• Bylsma said there were no issues with defenseman Brooks Orpik in terms of playing in Game 4 Friday night after Orpik took a thunderous hit from Milan Lucic in the second overtime period. Orpik appeared dazed from the hit but did return to the ice a few moments later, and was on the ice when the winning goal was scored.
• There was an interesting give-and-take between veteran Pittsburgh beat writer Rob Rossi and Bylsma on Thursday afternoon. Rossi asked what the coach felt was at stake personally for him in Game 4 and moving forward in this series.
"I don't coach, have never coached, for my job," Bylsma responded. "When I took over as coach of this hockey team in '09, I came here to win hockey games, and that's where we're at right now. We know what's in front of us. We know exactly what's in front of us with the odds being down 0-3, but I believe in that group, I believe in that team, I believe in how we battled and how we're going to battle, and we're going to go in knowing we have an elimination game and win Game 4."
PITTSBURGH -- Let’s be clear about one thing. If any player in the NHL rams another player into the end boards from behind like Matt Cooke did to Adam McQuaid early in the second period Saturday night, it’s a penalty.
Or it should be.
But maybe the better question is whether the fact Cooke, a player with a long history of dangerous plays who has worked mightily to rehabilitate his game and his image in the past two years, paid a heavier price for the hit than someone else.
Cooke was given a five-minute major for hitting from behind and a game misconduct 1:32 into the second period of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Saturday. The Bruins did not score on what was a three-minute power play thanks to a Chris Kelly minor at the same time, but it did raise the emotional temperature of an already testy game.
McQuaid missed some shifts in the period but did return.
The issue of Cooke’s fate was further clouded late in the period when Brad Marchand, another player with a reputation for borderline play, rammed James Neal from behind near the Pittsburgh bench but received only a minor penalty.
"I mean, I don’t see the difference, really. Neal doesn’t go directly into the boards I don’t think, I don’t think it’s quite as straight-on as Cookie’s, but McQuaid was able to get up pretty quick, I thought," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said after the Bruins had defeated Pittsburgh 3-0.
Crosby was quick to point out that he didn’t think the Cooke hit was a good one.
"I don’t think it was a great hit, don’t get me wrong, he’s got his back turned, it’s a board (boarding call)," he said.
Crosby would not venture down the road of whether Cooke’s reputation factored into the game misconduct.
"That I don’t want to say that, to be honest with you," Crosby said. "We all know the history with Cookie and it’s going to be looked at and scrutinized a lot more because it’s him, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s a penalty because it’s Cookie. I think if it’s anyone it’s a penalty. The fact that it’s a match, though, I think that’s kind of up for debate."
Cooke was not available to comment after the game but head coach Dan Bylsma made no excuses either.
"It’s clearly a hit right through the numbers," Bylsma said. "I’m not sure I think it warranted a five minute penalty but he did come right behind the guy."
What was interesting in the aftermath was that the Bruins, for the most part, chose to take the high road when asked about the hit. Given the history with Cooke -- his blindside hit on Marc Savard in 2010 was a factor in Savard’s career being cut short -- one might have expected something different.
"I saw it but I’m not going to comment," said Nathan Horton, who scored the Bruins’ third goal of the night. "I don’t know if it was anything dirty. He hasn’t been a dirty player for a long time now and I’m not sure if he was trying to do that. I think Quaider’s OK, so that’s all I’ll say about it."
Defenseman Andrew Ference was suspended for one game in the first round for a blow to the head of Toronto’s Mikhail Grabovski. He was likewise diplomatic in discussing the Cooke hit Saturday.
"It’s really a difficult thing to give too much of an opinion, especially at this time of the year," Ference said. "The refs have a tough enough job and for us to offer our opinions whether what they called or against what they called, I think it’s unfair of us to dig our nose into their business. It’s not our play to comment on it."
PITTSBURGH -- It was probably the moment when Evgeni Malkin and Patrice Bergeron, he of the one career NHL fight, decided to drop the gloves and start whaling on each other at center ice that illustrated how very quickly this Eastern Conference finals had gone off the charts emotionally. And while Malkin, a former Hart Trophy winner, scoring champ and playoff MVP, might have won a unanimous decision in his rare bout with the Boston center, it was the Bruins who scored the Game 1 knockout by blanking the Penguins by a 3-0 count.
The game, a curious affair filled with borderline and over-the-line plays, including a hitting-from-behind call against the polarizing Matt Cooke, put us immediately in mind of last year’s first-round series between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia: a wacky, out-of-kilter series that featured at one point simultaneous fights between Claude Giroux and Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang and Kimmo Timonen.
Given how the Philadelphia-Pittsburgh series of April 2012 turned out, with the Flyers getting the Penguins completely off their game and walking away with a six-game victory -- including victories in the first two games in Pittsburgh -- you have to figure Saturday’s emotionally charged affair was exactly what the Bruins were looking for to begin the conference finals.
"I don’t think the situation at the end of the second period was in our favor," Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma said of the Malkin fight and an extended jawing session between the two captains, Boston’s Zdeno Chara towering over his counterpart Sidney Crosby while exchanging pleasantries near where the fight was taking place.
Although the Penguins trailed just 1-0 at that point, Bylsma pointed to that moment as the one where Game 1 got away from the Penguins and conversely when the Bruins seized control.
The Penguins were on a power play at the end of the second period that would carry into the third, thanks to another potentially dangerous play by Brad Marchand, who was called for boarding after hitting James Neal from behind near the Pittsburgh bench.
But with the Penguins missing power play mainstay Malkin, off for fighting, as well as Chris Kunitz, who was sent off late in the second with Rich Peverley for another dustup, the Bruins continued their strong penalty kill, and shortly after the Penguins’ power play ended scored their second goal to suck the life out of the Penguins.
"It did get us off our game," Bylsma acknowledged.
Defenseman Brooks Orpik suggested the Bruins are the team better suited for those kinds of extracurricular activities and that it did seem to change the course of the game.
"After that, it seemed like they were a lot better," he said.
The Bruins, of course, saw that defining moment through a different prism.
"That sums up this time of year," Boston defenseman Andrew Ference said. "Two of the top guys on each team are raising the stakes and will do anything to either fire up the team, to swing momentum, to establish what this series is going to be all about. It’s impressive to see guys like that do that dirty work. It’s raw emotion and it’s good."
Ference returned to the lineup after missing seven games with an injury and added an assist on the Bruins’ first goal, a David Krejci blast that nicked off the skate of Pittsburgh defenseman Paul Martin and squeezed through netminder Tomas Vokoun’s pads.
Bruins coach Claude Julien gave the matter little thought, which is most often how these incidents are viewed from the winning side.
"I didn't see everything happen except that there was a fight. I saw Sidney [Crosby] push our goaltender as he's skating off," Julien said.
"This is playoff hockey. Those things are going to happen. You don't whine or complain about it, you just deal with it. What we had to deal with tonight was winning a hockey game. That's all that mattered."
Nine times in their first 11 postseason games, the Penguins scored four or more goals. They did so with a relentless forecheck and at times uncontainable skill. In the latter stages of the New York Islanders series and for long stretches against Ottawa in the second round, the Penguins dictated pace, imposing their will upon the game.
One wondered then how the Bruins would or could contain that kind of offensive might, how they might grab the tiller themselves.
As it turned out, they did it by winning the patience game and goading the Penguins into a kind of emotional space they are far better to avoid.
"It’s tough. They’re letting a lot go out there. The more and more it gets like that, the more it’s going to escalate," said Crosby, who was whistled for two minor penalties.
"Keep letting guys do that stuff, they’re just going to push the envelope," he added. "That’s something we obviously want to stay away from but it’s kind of a natural thing when it gets like that."
You never know at the start of a series how the two elements are going to mix.
These two teams have little in the way of relevant history and yet the heightened tension, the short tempers, the borderline and across-the-line hits and post-whistle scrums suggested teams that have had a long-simmering feud that quickly boiled over onto the brightly lit ice.
While there were obvious signs of rust -- to be anticipated when the league inexplicably delayed the start of the series until Saturday evening, giving the two teams a week off from playoff action -- there was no rust in the emotion department.
That the emotion turned ugly and thus prompted more bad blood was, if not inevitable, then at least not unexpected.
Cooke crunched Adam McQuaid from behind into the end boards and earned a five-minute major and a game misconduct for hitting from behind before the second period was two minutes old.
Although Julien said during an in-game interview he believed McQuaid might have put himself in a vulnerable position, it doesn’t absolve Cooke, of all people, from understanding what is a borderline hit.
That Marchand was whistled for a potentially dangerous hit from behind on Neal but received only a two-minute minor enraged the sold-out CONSOL Energy Center crowd, although the hit had much less velocity than the one administered by Cooke.
Although the penalties had little bearing on the outcome of the game -- the two teams combined to go 0-for-8 with the man advantage, including a three-minute power play the Bruins enjoyed after the Cooke major -- they were certainly part of the emotional tapestry of the evening.
"As far as the emotion, I don’t know, it definitely wasn’t what we had in the Ottawa series but after what happened at the end of the second there, maybe it’ll ramp up," Orpik suggested.
If that’s the case, hang onto your hats for Game 2 on Monday.
PITTSBURGH -- A playoff series is probably the last place to go to forget about the past.
The past is always clanging into the present and even the future, especially at the start of an NHL playoff series.
What are the connections? Where are the lines of intersection?
What is the shared history between the two organizations and the players who populate those organizations?
• Boston Bruins defenseman Matt Bartkowski went to Mount Lebanon High School outside Pittsburgh.
• Pittsburgh Penguins winger Jarome Iginla spurned the Bruins and agreed to be traded this season to Pittsburgh.
• Sidney Crosby and Patrice Bergeron have a bond that dates to the 2005 World Junior Championships.
• And, of course, there is Matt Cooke and his blindside hit on Marc Savard in March 2010, a hit that precipitated the end of Savard’s career.
There have been a lot of twists and turns in the paths of both players and their teams since that night.
Savard, of course, returned to action the following season, but a hit from Matt Hunwick, a former teammate, during a game in Denver in early 2011 essentially ended Savard’s playing days. We run into him occasionally, and it’s clear the struggles to deal with concussion issues have been many and varied and continue to take their toll.
By any standard, it is a sad story of a solid career cut short.
Cooke has endured something of an odyssey, as well, brushing up against the end of his days as an NHL player following a suspension for the final 10 games of the regular season and first round of the 2011 playoffs for an elbow to the head of New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh.
With the Penguins on record as saying Cooke would need to change his ways to stay with the team -- and, effectively, in the league -- Cooke has had a mostly unblemished record since. There was an incident with Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson during which Karlsson’s Achilles tendon was lacerated by Cooke’s skate, costing Karlsson most of the lockout-shortened regular season. But few outside Senators ownership believed it was anything more than a hockey play gone bad.
But with the Penguins set to face the Bruins in the Eastern Conference finals, beginning Saturday at Consol Energy Center, Cooke was asked Thursday whether the Savard incident might be an issue.
“I can’t control other people’s opinions,” he said. “I’ve learned that fans have emotions towards certain things, and they’re going to be attached to them.”
Say what you will about Cooke -- and it’s fair to say most of it has indeed been said, and with all the colorful language you might expect in relation to one of the game’s most-polarizing figures -- the rugged winger is unfailingly patient about answering questions about the past.
“I need to go out and prepare to play against the Bruins to the best of my ability. If I’m worried about that, it’s going to affect me in a negative way,” he said.
Certainly, it seems, if time doesn’t heal all wounds, it at least prompts folks to forget at least a little. Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma figures that’s not necessarily in many fans’ DNA -- regardless of the steps Cooke has taken to rehabilitate his game and reputation.
“I’m not sure any city or any fans, it’s not in their nature to forget, let it go, turn the page, any of that,” Bylsma said. “I don’t think it was a big storyline, or I didn’t sense it as much this year from their fans.
“If it is any kind of factor in this series, it’s probably going to mean Matt’s playing well and we’re playing well versus the other way around. I don’t think it’s much of a factor to the way the series is going to be played, to the two teams.”
Cooke is having a solid playoffs, leading a Pittsburgh penalty-killing unit that has allowed just four goals on 39 opportunities. He has also chipped in three assists.
Most of that will be lost on those who remain preoccupied with the past, or at least this thin sliver of it.
“His game and his approach to the game and how he plays has changed significantly since then,” Bylsma said. “I’m not sure Matt’s ever going to get away from some of that reputation throughout the league, but he’s put a significant amount of hockey in between his last suspension and how he’s played the last couple of years for us, and he continues to do that for us.
“He was a big factor, one of our best performers in the first two rounds, playing his game, playing well, playing physically.”
PITTSBURGH -- In the wake of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ lopsided win in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference second-round series against the Ottawa Senators, there is the expectation that this team is not yet done winning this spring.
And if the Penguins are going to keep winning -- a victory in Game 5 on Friday night would send them to their first conference finals since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009 -- there will be the inevitable comparisons to those teams that advanced to the Stanley Cup finals in 2008 and 2009, winning the Cup on the second try.
While it might be fun for the media to ruminate, you don’t have to go far in the Penguins’ locker room to realize that the players do not view themselves through the prism of the past.
Sidney Crosby said that change is inevitable regardless of whether a team has been successful.
“I think obviously there’s a few guys still around, but we’ve definitely changed a lot. I don’t think any team year to year, whether you’ve won or whatever’s happened, I don’t think any team’s ever the same. I think there’s always differences,” said Crosby, who has been dynamic since coming back from a broken jaw, with 14 points in nine games. “There’s changing of players and identity and things like that. But, no, we’re a different team for a lot of different reasons.”
Still, it’s inevitable that people will want to connect the dots between the Penguins of 2008 and 2009 and this deep, talented team, as if to discern whether their paths were similar.
“I think that’s pretty common, but it’s not as easy as that,” Crosby said. “Because you’ve won in the past, because certain guys have been together, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee anything.
“That experience, though, is something that can’t really be taught; you have to go through it. It is definitely an added bonus, but it’s kind of up to you what you do with it.”
Forward Matt Cooke was with the Penguins team that won the 2009 Cup, but he’s not expecting that experience to have any bearing on how the team performs in the coming days.
“I think each team is completely different. Makeup is different. Lines are different. Everything’s different. You can look back on those experiences to guide you moving forward, but I don’t think it has any comparison as to what this team did ... because it’s a different makeup,” said Cooke, who is coming off a strong performance in Wednesday's 7-3 win that saw him set up a short-handed goal and draw a penalty that led to the go-ahead goal.
If there is an obvious difference between the two versions of the Penguins, it’s the startling depth the current roster boasts.
Whereas Pittsburgh used a variety of players en route to the finals in 2008 and 2009, this team is rich in NHL talent from top to bottom.
Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson referred to that depth and the team’s dangerous power play, saying after Game 4 that it wasn’t likely the Senators could win three straight games and upset the Penguins.
All of the Penguins skated Friday morning, and if coach Dan Bylsma has a full roster at his disposal, he will be forced to sit a handful of bona fide NHL players. He made a couple of roster moves before Game 4, inserting youngster Beau Bennett and veteran forward Jussi Jokinen in place of Tanner Glass and Brenden Morrow, and Pittsburgh outscored the Senators 6-1 in the final two periods -- including four goals in the first half of the third.
“I think in the playoffs, though, you don’t usually expect that,” Crosby said. “I think when you look at your team or you look at offense or anything like that, I think you’re more looking at the depth of our team. To be able to do that is, obviously, it’s great, but it doesn’t happen too often in the playoffs. It was nice we were able to, but I don’t think we expect that every period. But we have guys in here that are capable of scoring, that’s for sure.”
As if to highlight the belief that one game does not necessarily relate to or suggest the outcome of the next game, Crosby talked about watching the other playoff games Thursday night.
There are lessons to be learned, he said -- mostly that you don’t know what’s going to happen.
“I think you’re always trying to learn, but I think you realize year after year the playoffs are tough and there’s no guarantees, there’s no gimmes,” Crosby said. “You have to make sure that you’re at your best, and even when you’re at your best, that doesn’t guarantee anything.
“I think the other series are a good example of that. You see last night the Rangers hang in, find a way to win in overtime, so they’re not rolling over and quitting. So I think you can always kind of take things away from other series, but I think the thing that seems to be common every year is that there’s no real kind of guideline to how it goes. Anything can happen.”
MacLean wants more O
The Senators are tinkering with their lineup a little as coach Paul MacLean tries to coax more offense out of his squad while also trying to instill some calm to the proceedings, especially in the early going Friday.
It appears that top center Jason Spezza will rejoin former linemates Alfredsson and Milan Michalek on the team’s top line in Game 5.
“Obviously Mac’s probably looking for us to give us a jump,” said Spezza, who is playing his third game of the playoffs after missing most of the regular season and the first round recovering from back surgery. “Haven’t played with Alfie very consistently over the last couple of years, so it’ll be nice to play with him. We’d like to have a good game. Hopefully we can find some old chemistry and have a good night.”
Spezza played 18:40 in his first game back, which the Senators won in double overtime, and 17:48 in Game 4. He has yet to register a point.
“I think guys are excited for the challenge ahead of us,” he said. “We know that they’re going to want to try and close us out tonight, and we know we’re going to try and give our best game of the series. It’s a good opportunity for us to play a big game.”
MacLean said the coaching staff has always viewed the three veteran forwards as fall-back options because of their experience, and the expectation is for them to see lots of ice time early in the game.
Alfredsson, at the center of a controversy with his comments after Game 4, said he’s excited to play with his old linemates, but that the team needs to start better than it did in Games 1 and 2 in Pittsburgh, when the Penguins scored early in both.
Alfredsson also noted that Ottawa cannot give the Penguins, owners of the most explosive power play in the postseason, as many chances as they’ve been getting.
“We’ve got to be disciplined both with and without the puck,” he said.
Mark Stone, who played with Spezza and Michalek in Game 4 and had a number of good scoring chances, was injured in that game and did not travel to Pittsburgh. It’s expected Cory Conacher will be back in the lineup.
PITTSBURGH –- Flash back to the third period of Game 5, 2007 Stanley Cup finals.
The Ottawa Senators are sunk. They are trailing in the third period of what would be a 6-2 loss to the Anaheim Ducks in the final game in that final series, and the fans at the Honda Center were buzzing at the anticipation of their team's first Stanley Cup win.
But although the inevitable seemed to have sapped the entire Senators team of any remaining strength, one player doggedly pursued the puck, steadfastly tried to create scoring chances, never gave up, never quit.
His name? Daniel Alfredsson.
A year later, the Senators would be the underdogs in a first-round series against an emerging Pittsburgh Penguins team. In spite of injuries that kept him out of the first two games of that series, Alfredsson returned to the lineup for the final two games of what would be a sweep at the hands of the Penguins.
Although it was obvious he was playing through significant pain, Alfredsson was again the last Senator to concede defeat, the last one to take a knee.
We have watched up close as Alfredsson has patiently answered question after question after gut-wrenching playoff defeats. We have seen him accept blame for disappointments, sometimes when it’s been earned and other times because it was the right thing to do.
Those are important touchstones as Alfredsson and his Senators face yet another long, uphill battle against the Penguins, against the backdrop that Game 5 might in fact be the classy Swede's final NHL game.
On Wednesday night, after Alfredsson and the Sens were whipped 7-3 by the Penguins and fell into a 3-1 series hole, the captain was asked whether it was probable that his team could win three straight games against the Penguins.
"Probably not," he told a group of reporters. "With their depth and power play right now, it doesn't look too good."
It is a sad reflection of our time, and perhaps the nature of sport, that a moment of raw candor from one of the game's most respected players -- and certainly the most popular Senator of all time -- has somehow morphed into a question about Alfredsson's commitment or leadership.
A little perspective, please.
If the Penguins do close out the Senators on Friday night in Pittsburgh, we are relatively certain the last player fighting for that last loose puck will be Alfredsson.
It is who he is. It is woven into the fabric of his being.
That he simply spoke the truth after his team was torched for four goals in the third period of Game 4 by the most fearsome offensive team in the postseason after taking a 2-1 lead out of the first period, is something that should be admired if not celebrated.
The Penguins have outscored the Senators 16-9 in the first four games of this second-round series. In three of the four games, the powerful Penguins have scored at least four goals.
The Pittsburgh power play -- which features Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jarome Iginla and James Neal, among others -- is the most deadly of any team in the playoff field and has scored 12 times in 10 games thus far this postseason.
Although there was discussion of the context in which his words were used, give credit to Alfredsson, who reiterated to reporters in Ottawa on Thursday that he believes his team is facing a tough road.
"There’s no denying we're in tough. Was it taken out of context? Probably, but that's fine. I can handle that," Alfredsson said before the team chartered its way to Pittsburgh for Friday's win-or-pack-'em-up tilt.
But if people think he was implying that he and the Sens have quit, they're wrong, Alfredsson said.
"If you ask anyone and they looked at our series, I don't think there's too many people that would pick us right now. That's what I meant,” he said. "Maybe I should have continued right away where I left off on the answer that I don't doubt one second that we're going to come out with a great effort tomorrow."
The playoffs are an emotional time for anyone involved, but when you're a 40-year-old who is approaching the finish line in a career that should and will earn Hall of Fame discussion, the dynamics are even more powerful.
Much was made of the fact that Alfredsson paused before leaving the ice after Game 4 to collect the puck from one of the linesmen. Who could blame him?
He has played his entire career with the Senators and is their leader in every important offensive category. Why shouldn't he have a memento if Wednesday's game was indeed his last home game?
Alfredsson hasn't said whether he will retire at the end of the season, and he acknowledged that he wasn't exactly sure why he took the puck with him.
"There's no specific reason. Could this be my last playoffs, could this be my last season? I don't know. I don't collect sticks or keep a lot of memorabilia at home, but there's no specific reason," he said.
A year ago, when the Senators lost in the first round of the playoffs to the New York Rangers, Alfredsson stopped the team bus as it was leaving Madison Square Garden to shake hands with a group of Senators fans. Some saw it as a sign that he was done.
It didn't turn out that way, of course. And who knows how the rest of this series will turn out?
One thing's for sure: The Penguins are well aware of Alfredsson's comments and don't believe they will have any impact on the kind of game the Senators will play Friday.
"I think that Ottawa's a team that we know has no quit. They're not going to stop coming at us," said Matt Cooke, who had a strong showing in Game 4 that included drawing an important penalty that led to a power-play goal and setting up a short-handed goal by Pascal Dupuis.
"I think he's a smart guy. He's a great leader for their team and organization, and I'm sure that he’s got the right intentions and motives behind his comments," Cooke said of Alfredsson.
Neal also knew of the comments, but likewise believed them to have little to do with the effort he's expecting from a Senators team that has walked tall in the face of adversity all season.
"I don't think by any means are they going to give up or roll over," said Neal, who broke out in Game 4 with a pair of goals and an assist. "We know that, and you saw it from their coach when he walked up to the podium last night and said they're coming to Pittsburgh with their best game and they're coming to play, and we expect that."
Neal was referring to the dramatic postgame summation given by Ottawa coach Paul MacLean, who simply held up the score sheet and said that all anyone needed to know about the game was on the sheet and that the Senators were going to Pittsburgh to play a game.
On Thursday, MacLean had little to say about Alfredsson’s comments.
"The playoffs are hard all the time, it's just harder [now]," MacLean said. "Daniel, I've got no issue with that."
Neither should anyone else.
Alfredsson has earned that kind of respect. As has been the case for many years, we have little doubt that people will remember Alfredsson's play far longer than his words at the end of a tough night in Ottawa.
PITTSBURGH -- Islanders coach Jack Capuano talked before the game about the need for his team to stay disciplined. Yet early in the first period, former Penguin Brian Strait took exception to a Matt Cooke hit on one of his teammates and gave Cooke a shot as Strait was coming onto the ice, drawing an interference penalty. The Pens’ Beau Bennett scored late in the power play to put the Isles behind the eight ball early on. The power-play goal was aided by the fact a clearing attempt by the Isles struck one of the on-ice officials in the neutral zone and allowed the Penguins to quickly return to the Islander zone.
Veteran netminder Evgeni Nabokov was yanked early in the second period after allowing four goals on 15 shots. Three of those goals came after he took a Jarome Iginla rocket off the top of his mask, a shot that left him momentarily dazed in the first period.
"I never had that. The chunk was out, and I think the mask is done," Nabokov said.
"It’s the first time I’ve actually felt it," Nabokov said, adding that he was lucky the puck hit the top of the mask as opposed to a more direct impact on the forehead or cage.
"Yeah. Good mask," he said ruefully.
Pittsburgh defenseman Mark Eaton, who was part of the Pens’ Cup-winning team in 2009 before departing for Long Island, where he played for two seasons, signed with the Penguins in February as a free agent when the Penguins were beset by injuries. He drew an assist on Pascal Dupuis’ second goal Wednesday night, his first point of the season. He led all players with eight blocked shots. When the Penguins are healthy along the blue line (Brooks Orpik missed Game 1 with an injury sustained late in the regular season), Eaton usually plays with Kris Letang his defense partner during the ’09 Cup run.
Marc-Andre Fleury’s sixth postseason shutout leaves him tied with Tom Barrasso for the most playoff shutouts in franchise history.
Now, obviously Brendan Shanahan couldn't possibly ignore Cooke's past if he did something the disciplinary committee ruled was illegal, but the rules state that Cooke is no longer a repeat offender.
The loss isn't just that of the Ottawa Senators and their fans, but for the entire game of hockey.
Erik Karlsson is one of the true pearls of this sport. He’s the No. 1 reason most of us turn on Ottawa games. His magical hands and awe-inspiring brand of hockey bring people out of their seats.
So when the reigning Norris trophy winner went down with a cut Achilles tendon Wednesday night, it was a horrible sight on so many levels.
Horrible for a Senators team already missing star center Jason Spezza and now likely facing a season going down the drain without its top two skaters.
Horrible for fans of the game who are deprived of watching the NHL's most exciting defenseman.
And most of all, horrible for Karlsson, who suffers through the trauma and pain of it all.
That said, Brendan Shanahan and the NHL's player safety department got it right when they determined Matt Cooke should not face discipline for his skate cutting Karlsson.
It was a freak play, with a horrific result. But having watched the replay a dozen times, I can't see how it was malicious or done with intent.
Nor could any of the hockey people I spoke with Wednesday night or Thursday morning.
"I feel horrible for Erik Karlsson, I feel bad for Ottawa," Penguins general manager Ray Shero told ESPN.com on Thursday. "It’s a bad feeling. But I can't rationalize where that was a dirty play or anything with intent. Our fan base knows how it feels to lose a star player. It's emotional. I know how it feels like. It's just very unfortunate. I would not be defending Matt Cooke if I thought it was a dirty hockey play."
Perhaps those words would ring hollow from other GMs because their duty is to defend their players, but not Shero. For starters, he condemned Cooke after the winger was suspended in March 2011 for a hit to the head of New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh.
"The suspension is warranted because that's exactly the kind of hit we're trying to get out of the game," Shero said then in a statement. "Head shots have no place in hockey. We've told Matt in no uncertain terms that this kind of action on the ice is unacceptable and cannot happen. Head shots must be dealt with severely, and the Pittsburgh Penguins support the NHL in sending this very strong message."
Secondly, when Shero says he knows how the Senators feel, he's not kidding. There's the David Steckel hit that temporarily derailed the career of Sidney Crosby. But if you want a better comparison, how about P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens colliding with former Penguin Jordan Staal in the 2010 playoffs, a hit that resulted in a severed tendon for the star center?
But you see, the only reason we have a controversy here is because it involves Cooke, whose rap sheet of suspendable offenses makes him one of the most disliked players in the league.
Senators GM Bryan Murray was calmer the day after the incident, but his true feelings were obvious when asked about the NHL not suspending Cooke.
"As I told Brendan [Shanahan], it's not my job to make that judgment," Murray told ESPN.com on Thursday afternoon. "I'm disappointed that Erik got hurt, I'm disappointed for him and our team. It's dreadful. I was upset at the time; it's Matt Cooke, and there is some history there. It's one of the best players in the league getting hurt. But I can't do anybody else's job but my own. And it's of no value one way or another to the Ottawa Senators if Matt Cooke is suspended or not. We don't get our player back."
I feel for the veteran GM of the Senators, but I just can't look at that replay and find intent.
I thought former NHLer Aaron Ward did a great job on TSN in Canada on Wednesday night showing clips of mundane plays from the Dallas-Calgary game in which players lifted their skates trying to pin opposing players to the boards. It happens all the time, just not with the horrific result that it did with Cooke and Karlsson.
And while I'm never going to convince anybody that Cooke is a new player, I still need to point out that he hasn't been suspended since that March 2011 incident with McDonagh. He has tried to change his ways. The Penguins told him he had to or else he wouldn't have a place on the team.
Nothing changes what matters most in this story, that we've lost one of the game's top players for the rest of the season. It's a crying shame.
But throwing the book at Cooke would not have been the right call.
- Marian Hossa worked out on the ice with coaches for an hour on Tuesday as he continues to rehabilitate from a season-ending concussion suffered in the playoffs. (CSN Chicago)
- Avs center Matt Duchene announced on Twitter that he signed with Frolunda HC of the Swedish Elite League. (Denver Post)
- Claude Giroux hasn’t decided where he will play during the lockout, but he said he believes the lockout will end in time for the NHL to play this year. (Ottawa Sun)
- About a dozen Red Wings players have been skating at Troy Sports Center, with the ice being booked in Henrik Zeterberg’s name, but it hasn’t been decided yet which player will pay the bill for the ice time. (Detroit Free Press)
- Matt Cooke has become the Penguins fill-in equipment manager, sharpening the skates of teammates on his own machine, and the reviews are mixed on how good his work is. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
- New Jersey native Bobby Ryan has been working out with some of the Flyers top players during the lockout. (Courier Post)
- The Kings brought the Cup to a 9-year-old girl who fractured her skull and bruised her brain stem while hiking in the mountains in July. (Los Angeles Times)
- Preds forward Colin Wilson is getting advice on dealing with the lockout from his father, Carey, who was a part of the 1992 NHL players strike. (The Tennessean)
- Blues coach Ken Hitchcock is preparing for multiple training camp scenarios given that there is no set date for when – or if – the season will begin. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
- Carolina’s Anthony Stewart is playing in Britain’s Elite League for basically nothing just so he can get as much playing time as possible. (New York Times)
• Crosby recorded three assists in the Penguins’ win at New Jersey, after assisting on two goals against the Rangers on Thursday when he returned to action after being sidelined for more than three months by a concussion. Crosby has played 10 games this season but he’s picked up at least two assists in six of those games. Crosby had only seven multiple-assist games in the 41 games he played last season. On the other hand, Crosby scored two goals in his 2011–12 season debut (Nov. 21 vs. the Islanders) but he’s goalless in nine games since then, matching the longest goal drought of his NHL career (nine games in December 2008).
• Matt Cooke, who scored two goals in the Penguins’ 5–2 win over the Rangers on Thursday, scored two goals in Pittsburgh’s 5–2 victory against the Devils on Saturday afternoon. Cooke has four two-goal games this season, one more than his total for the previous six seasons combined (three from 2005–06 through 2010–11). The only other season in Cooke’s NHL career in which he recorded more than one multiple-goal game was 2001–02, when he had a pair of two-goal games for the Canucks.
• Boston ends its 4-game losing streak by continuing its dominance over Philadelphia. The Bruins have won 8 of their last 10 against the Flyers, including 3 of 4 this season. Tyler Seguin scored his 25th goal this season. The Bruins are 15-6 when Seguin scores a goal. Tim Thomas made 27 saves for his 4th career 30-win season, the most ever by a Bruins goaltender. Rookie Matt Read had a goal (20) and an assist for the Flyers. Bruins are 8-2 in shootouts this season.
• The Bruins scored on all three of their shootout attempts in their win over the Flyers on Saturday afternoon. It was Boston’s first perfect 3-for-3 shootout in the seven seasons that the NHL has used the tiebreaker. Three other NHL teams have gone 3-for-3 in a shootout this season: Ottawa (Oct. 11), Columbus (Dec. 13) and Colorado (Dec. 19).
• Flyers rookie Matt Read scored his 20th goal of the season in Philadelphia’s shootout loss in Boston. Read is the second rookie to reach the 20-goal mark this season, following Colorado’s Gabriel Landeskog, who scored his 20th goal on Wednesday. Since 1994–95, the only other Flyers rookies to score 20 or more goals in one season were Simon Gagne in 1999–2000 (20), and Jeff Carter (23) and R.J. Umberger (20) in 2005–06.
Banished for the final 10 regular-season games and the first round of the playoffs for the latest in a long line of dangerous and/or borderline hits, Cooke spent his time away from the game pondering how he could still be an effective player without crossing the proverbial line.
But perhaps the better question as Thursday's season opener against the Vancouver Canucks approached wasn't how Cooke was going to adapt, but whether he could at all.
Well, one game into the 2011-12 regular season, Cooke is on pace for 184 goals and the Pens are looking to go 82-0 after they upended last season's Western Conference champions and Presidents' Trophy winners 4-3 in a shootout.
And while Cooke might have been the focal point of the victory, is it not true that all season-opening games represent the first findings of the science experiment known as training camp?
Whether it was Philadelphia sneaking by the Stanley Cup champs in Boston by a 2-1 count behind solid netminding from new franchise goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov or Toronto blanking Montreal 2-0 with James Reimer providing the heroics in goal, these initial contests will give us the first tangible answers.
In Vancouver, fans were treated to a season opener that bore a closer resemblance to a playoff tilt as the game wore on, given the tempo of the game and the skill on display on both sides of the ice.
"It was definitely faster than a first game of the season, I'll say that," Cooke, a former Canuck, said after. "They have a great squad. I know that their expectations for their team [are] to be there in the end, and that's similar to us. Those were two good teams going at it at a pretty good pace."
We jest, of course, about Cooke's potential to keep up his torrid scoring exploits and the Pens running the table. But on a night when the Penguins and Canucks were looking to start creating some distance between themselves and disappointing finishes to last season, both teams had to be more than a little pleased at what they saw.
Last season, the Penguins blew a 3-1 series lead in the first round against Tampa Bay as their power play went dry without Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Cooke. On Thursday, James Neal scored on the power play to give the Pens a 1-0 lead, one of two power-play goals for them on the evening. That goal equaled the number of goals the big winger scored in 20 regular-season games after being acquired from Dallas at the trade deadline last season.
Playing with a rejuvenated Malkin and free-agent acquisition Steve Sullivan, the trio had a number of terrific opportunities.
"I thought he was really patient with the puck in the offensive zone," Bylsma said. "He really showed he's a big power guy and handled the puck down low. That line in particular was very dangerous in the offensive zone."
Cooke added the second power-play goal, and while his teammates could be seen ribbing him on the bench afterward, his presence on the ice and not in the press box is important.
"It's weird how things work and weird how the world works sometimes," Cooke said. "When you go through tough times and you're in a situation, that's desperation. It's one of those things that when you have success early, it makes it that much easier to feel good about what you're doing. 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."
The Pens also killed off three Vancouver power plays and continued their strong short-handed play. They led the league in penalty-killing efficiency last season, and Cooke, who generally kills penalties on the first unit with center Jordan Staal, is a big part of that group.
Although he allowed a stinker to Max Lapierre from behind the goal line, Penguins netminder Marc-Andre Fleury was solid Thursday, stopping 33 of 36 shots and denying the Canucks on two shootout attempts. Fleury got off to a rocky start last season but was the team's best player during the second half.
As for the Canucks, Game 1 of the regular season, regardless of the outcome, wasn't going to erase the sting of their desultory loss to the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals after leading the series 2-0 and 3-2. Still, the Canucks got better as Thursday's contest went along and erased a 3-1 deficit to earn a point in the standings. Daniel and Henrik Sedin were terrific, as they combined for a goal and three assists.
Still, Thursday's effort won't do much to silence the critics of netminder Roberto Luongo. He allowed Neal to score from behind the goal line as the shot caromed off his right pad and into the net.
"Went off my stick and my leg," Luongo said. "Obviously, not the goal you want to be giving up early in a game."
Then he was beaten from long range by a terrific Cooke wrist shot in the second period while the Canucks were on the power play.
"I didn't see it off the stick right away," he said. "But there's no way the guy should score from there. I've got to make that save. I've got to do a better job, as far as those goals are concerned."
Luongo, of course, will be the bellwether all season for Canucks fans. On the nights he's on, and there will be many, Luongo will restore the faith that this is a Cup-worthy team. On the nights he's off, and Thursday probably would count as one of those, it will remind fans of Luongo's frequent trips sideways through the playoffs this past spring and his especially miserable performance in the latter stages of the Cup finals.
Still, his willingness to take ownership of his play Thursday, as opposed to his curious offerings during the Cup finals, when he suggested he wasn't getting enough praise from counterpart Tim Thomas, is a positive sign.
The first game of the regular season is always imbued with far too much importance. That's the nature of sport after the build-up to the start of a new season with so much unknown and so much anticipation.
"It's really nice [to finally start playing]," Vancouver defenseman Dan Hamhuis said. "There has been so much talk, concern and worry about our team. It's nice to start playing, put an end to last year and focus on this year."
It wouldn't be a great shock if we ended up watching the Penguins and Canucks in the Stanley Cup finals.
But the only thing that is certain after Game 1 of this season is there is an awfully long road ahead of both these teams, but they are happy to be on it.