PITTSBURGH — Matt Cooke hasn’t been suspended in over two years, but the controversial Penguins forward knows that his past is on plenty of people’s minds as he prepares to face the Bruins in Eastern Conference finals.
Cooke, a veteran of 13 seasons, is best known for having a career of dirty hits, none more infamous than his elbow to the head of Bruins center Marc Savard back in 2010. The hit effectively ended Savard’s career, as lingering concussion symptoms have kept him off the ice the last two seasons. Savard last played in 2011, but was shut down for the season after suffering another concussion on a routine check from Avalanche defenseman Matt Hunwick.
“I can’t control people’s opinions,” Cooke said Thursday. “Fans have emotions towards certain things and they’re going to be attached to them. I need to go out and prepare to play against the Bruins to the best of my ability, and if I’m worried about that, it’s going to affect me in a negative way.”
Asked if he thought about the Savard hit (for which he was not suspended at the time), when he saw that the Penguins would play the Bruins in the conference finals, Cooke shook his head and said, “Nope.”
The Bruins have said this week that they aren’t focused on Cooke now, but they certainly aren’t fans of his. After Cooke’s last suspension, which came in March of 2011 when he was banned for the rest of the season and playoffs for targeting the head of Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh, Brad Marchand called for an end to Cooke’s dirty play.
“I think that it’s about time he gets — he’s got to be taught a lesson,” Marchand said at the time. “He’s doing that stuff left, right, and center. I expect that he’ll probably get a bunch of games, but he’s got to be taught a lesson. You can’t be running around doing that stuff all the time. He’s going to seriously hurt someone again. Look at Savvy, and now McDonagh. He could have easily hurt him.
“It just seems to be part of his game. He likes to throw cheap shots around. I don’t know if he’ll learn. Hopefully he does. Hopefully he doesn’t hurt someone to the point where their career is over. You want to get that stuff out of the game, and hopefully he does learn his lesson.”
Cooke, his teammates and coach Dan Bylsma have said Cooke’s been a different player since the forward vowed to change entering last season. He hasn’t been suspended since, though he received heat after it was his skate that accidentally sliced Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson‘s Achilles’ tendon back in February.
“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 years for us.”
Bylsma added that Cooke has been “one of our best performers in the first two rounds, playing his game, playing well, playing physically.” He noted that if Cooke remains a storyline throughout the series, it’s “probably going to mean Matt’s playing well and we’re playing well vs. the other way around.”