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Gorman: Cooke fosters love-hate relationships

Matt Cooke might be given to self-deprecation, downplaying his playoff-best shooting percentage by describing his goals against Ottawa as scored within six feet of the net with the goalie nowhere in sight.

Don't let him fool you.

The Penguins' controversial left wing beat Montreal goaltender Jaroslav Halak on a forehand-to-backhand beauty Sunday afternoon at Mellon Arena for the Penguins' lone goal in a 3-1 loss to the Canadiens in Game 2 of their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series.

Cooke has become a valuable commodity as a third-line winger and go-to guy on the penalty kill who finishes hits with ferocity and, most notably, as a capable scorer who has a career-high four goals in eight playoff games.

This is well and good for the Penguins' Stanley Cup championship defense, but it could become a problem for general manager Ray Shero if Cooke, like defenseman Rob Scuderi last spring, prices himself out of Pittsburgh.

Set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, Cooke could cash in on his playoff performance by signing a lucrative contract elsewhere, a subject Shero is loath to discuss in the here and now of the playoffs.

"Matt's been a great addition to our organization for two years," Shero said. "He's been a good fit as a person, as a player. He's played his role really well. He's doing things that win games for us."

It's not just that 40 percent shooting percentage or willingness to lay his body on the line, but the leadership to speak up when the Penguins are underperforming. After yesterday's defeat, Cooke said, "for whatever reason, we decided to get cute; you'd think we'd learn our lesson right now."

Beloved as "the Cookie Monster" at the Igloo, Cooke is as despised in both Boston and Montreal for hits that sidelined star players, and in Ottawa for his two-goal heroics in the Game 6 comeback. He is the epitome of a player you love to have on your team and hate to play against.

Just ask his teammates.

"Before I knew what it was like playing with him, I didn't like him a whole lot," Penguins defenseman Jay McKee said. "I actually thought he fought all the time. He's not so much like that. He's actually a really an effective player. He cycles really well, he's real physical, plays real well with his linemates. He's dependable defensively.

"He finishes all his checks and works hard. Guys who have his speed, they're able to finish checks harder and more often. That's what gets under other guys' skin. Every time he's on the ice, you feel like you're getting run over. That's where the agitator part comes out, especially in playoff series when you see guys over and over and over. Guys start to hate him."

Where Cooke hates being labeled an agitator — viewing it as a slight to his superior skill set when compared to predecessor Jarkko Ruutu — he revels in his role as a player who irritates opponents to the point of distraction.

"I've always tried to be a hard guy to play against," Cooke said, "a guy who — no matter who it is, whether it's their toughest guy or not — there's no easy ice, for lack of a better term, when I'm on there."

Cooke has been criticized by opponents as a cheap-shot artist. Montreal defenseman Hal Gill, a former Penguins teammate, said "the guy has a track record" before later retracting his remark. But you can't underestimate the importance of his ferocious finishing ability, especially on the forecheck.

Even when they add injury to insult.

Cooke was at the center of controversy this season for a blindside shot to the face of Boston's scoring leader, Marc Savard, who missed 24 games with a serious concussion. Cooke also crushed the Canadiens' best blue-liner and power-play quarterback, sending Andrei Markov back to Montreal. That started a scrum that led to a power play and the go-ahead goal in Game 1.

It's safe to say Cooke gets in opponents' heads.

"I wouldn't like playing against him," Penguins defenseman Alex Goligoski said. "He's a guy we like having on our side."

And a guy you'd hate to see on the other side.

So enjoy Cooke — while you can.

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