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Cooke has been steadying force for Penguins in playoffs

| Monday, May 20, 2013, 10:57 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Matt Cooke reacts against the Senators on Sunday, May 19, 2013, at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa.

OTTAWA — In the moments following Ottawa's punch-to-the-gut, double-overtime victory against the Penguins on Sunday night, left wing Matt Cooke looked unflappable while standing in front of his locker answering all the brutal questions.

His game has been pretty unflappable, too.

While many of his teammates have endured an unpredictable, roller coaster ride during the Stanley Cup playoffs, Cooke has been among the Penguins' steadiest players.

Cooke has but one point this postseason, but his teammates will tell you that statistics don't reflect his worth.

“He's pretty unbelievable right now,” right wing Tyler Kennedy said. “Cookie's always a good player, but he's really getting it done right now. He's a great leader, too.”

The Penguins have struggled mightily with turnovers and curious breakdowns this spring. These troubles haven't rubbed off on Cooke, whose steady, straight-line game is precisely what the coaching staff craves. Cooke has offered it in bunches, and his performance in Game 3 illustrated his value.

Cooke delivered a team-high six hits, many of them significant, in Game 3. He took a hit to set up Kennedy's goal in the second period, which was the only time the Penguins beat goaltender Craig Anderson.

His true value, however, has been evident in his defensive work.

Cooke was on the ice for center Colin Greening's game-winning goal, which is noteworthy because it marked the first time he has been on the ice for an even-strength goal during the postseason.

“I'd like to think I've been fairly consistent,” Cooke said. “I just feel like I'm playing smart defensively and trying to help out on the penalty kill as much as I can.”

Cooke was at his best Sunday, his penalty killing stifling the Senators' talented power play. Using his speed, which hasn't wavered at age 34, and his anticipation skills, Cooke has been a pest for Ottawa point men Erik Karlsson and Sergei Gonchar. His aggressive penalty killing rarely let the Senators set up in Penguins territory; Cooke continually created turnovers and made smart decisions with the puck. During a second-period kill, his work prohibited the Senators from registering a shot on goal.

Cooke even drew a penalty early in the second period, giving the Penguins' power play a chance to win the game.

He wasn't interested in gloating about his play following Game 3, but Cooke acknowledged that he's pleased with his game.

“I finally got on the board for the first time,” Cooke said. “That's the goal, to play consistently throughout the playoffs. It's the fun time of year. It's when you want to be at your best.”

Few will argue that Cooke isn't at his best right now.

His new center is impressed.

“He's been great to play with,” Brandon Sutter said. “You just feed off him the way he's playing. He just plays so hard, forechecks so hard, and he's been so great defensively.”

Cooke is no stranger to playoff success. His performance in Game 3 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final against Detroit — he drew a third-period penalty that led to Gonchar's game-winning goal — was among the best of his career. Cooke has shown himself to be a player capable of elevating his game in the spring.

He's doing it again this season — even if he remains a vilified figure north of the border.

“I don't know why they would feel that way,” Sutter said of Ottawa fans. “If that's their opinion, that's fine. I think it makes him better, too. He's been in the league a long time. Obviously he has that dark shadow because of a few things in the past. In my mind, he's a great team guy.”

He's also a guy the team has relied on heavily.

“Good hockey player,” left wing Brenden Morrow said. “Just a good, hard-working hockey player. He is really strong right now.”

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