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PITTSBURGH -- Not long ago we had a discussion with a longtime NHL player who is now a top NHL executive about a controversial playoff hit not involving his team. He lamented what he perceived as an eroding lack of responsibility on players to protect themselves.
He insisted that if players believe they can move about the ice oblivious to the dangers of an oncoming opponent just because the NHL has pledged to make the game safer, or worse, are trying to take advantage of those rules to draw penalties, then they are partly the authors of their own misfortune.
And that brings us to the thorny issue of Matt Cooke's controversial hit on Boston defenseman Adam McQuaid early in the second period of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final Saturday night.
Cooke was given a five-minute major for hitting from behind and a game misconduct, although he will not face any supplementary discipline.
The issue is clouded because it's Cooke, a polarizing player with a history of dangerous play who has worked diligently to change the manner in which he plays, watching dozens of hours of videotape to try and play effectively, without playing dangerously.
|Matt Cooke received a game misconduct for his hit on Adam McQuaid in Game 1.|
But was it deserving of the major penalty and game misconduct?
Looking back on Saturday's hit, it's clear McQuaid sees Cooke coming on the forecheck but at the last second turns his back completely to the Penguins' winger to try to reverse his path with the puck behind the Bruins net.
"You know I chipped the puck in early, just after the red line, I had quite a bit of interference from Torey Krug, which pushed me inside. But after I got by him (Krug) I look up, I see his right shoulder and he looks me right in the eyes," Cooke recounted Sunday afternoon before the Penguins were to hold an optional practice.
"I think at the last minute he goes to make a reverse with the puck but I've committed to hit him. I don't drive him through the boards. I made contact and I think it's a penalty, but I don't think it's an ejection or a suspension. But that's my opinion," Cooke said.
He insisted he doesn't believe that his reputation had anything to do with his receiving the severe penalty.
"I don't believe in that at all. I think the referees are trying to do the best job to call the game and initially it looked like he was maybe hurt but he played a shift after so I think that probably affected their decision," Cooke said.
McQuaid seemed dazed by the play and while he missed several shifts, he did return to action, although he finished the game with just 11:57 in ice time, down slightly from the 15:12 he has been averaging in the playoffs.
On Sunday McQuaid was clearly uncomfortable discussing the hit and the penalty called and his potential role in the incident.
"I don't think anyone wants to put themselves in a position like that," he said.
He said he was "maybe a little bit in shock" after the hit.
"I was not expecting the play. Just kind of find your bearings I guess," he said.
Muddying the waters of how the league is going to handle these kinds of hits was another hit later in Game 1 when Bruins forward Brad Marchand launched himself from behind into James Neal near the Pittsburgh bench and received a minor penalty, as opposed to the major and game misconduct Cooke received.
Head coach Dan Bylsma said he felt the Neal hit was more dangerous because Neal was completely unaware of Marchand and he could have hit his face or chin on the edge of the boards. As it was, the top of his helmet hit the board, although Neal was uninjured.
"I did not get an explanation on either hit. I don't know why. I think the Neal -- distance from the boards -- is probably a more dangerous situation for James that he catches the dasher on the top of his helmet and not a few inches lower, which would have been his forehead or eye level, so his helmet hits the dasher and goes down there, but I did not get any information," Bylsma said.
Cooke took the high road on the disparity between the two calls.
"Like I said, I think the referees are trying to manage the game the best they can and for whatever reason they viewed it differently," Cooke said.
Teammate Douglas Murray, a man who knows a thing or two about delivering and receiving big hits, was more blunt, saying he felt McQuaid should have taken care not to put himself in that position.
"It was definitely not a five-minute [penalty] I know that for sure. I think it's up to the D-man to protect himself in that situation," Murray said.
As for the Marchand hit, Murray thought it was more egregious.
"In my opinion that was a lot dirtier hit because Neal never saw him coming. It was up high on the numbers. If Cookie's was a five-minute that was definitely five minute too," Murray said.
No matter the discrepancies between the two hits and the sanctions they garnered, Cooke was relieved the matter would end without further discipline.
"Obviously it was a great relief. I want to be on the ice helping my team not sitting in this dressing room worrying about winning and losing. I've been in that situation before and it's no fun. And just thankful I can go out tomorrow night and help my team," he said.
It was Boston head coach Claude Julien who put the entire incident in its proper context, saying he has long advocated for players on both sides of the puck to take responsibility for what happens when players intersect.
"And I've said it before, and I'm certainly not going to change my mind because it happened to one of our players, but I've always said that we have to educate our players to not put themselves in vulnerable positions," Julien said.
While he wasn't talking specifically about the McQuaid hit, Julien acknowledged that, because the rules now prohibit hitting from behind, players sometimes try to use that to their advantage.
"Sometimes we take advantage of that rule, and it's dangerous. And in order to make our game better, I think it's got to come from both sides. Players got to understand that there's somebody coming and don't put yourself in vulnerable position," Julien said.
As for the Cooke situation, Julien acknowledged it was a penalty. He wouldn't say whether he thought it was worthy of a major and game misconduct but did seem relieved there wasn't any further discipline.
"I'll be honest with you, I have no issues if he's not suspended because I'm not convinced it's a suspendable thing, but I'm certainly not going to say that the referees didn't make the right decision, because I think they did in assessing the penalty," the coach said.