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Cooke says Penguins shouldn't be counted out when playoffs begin

| Saturday, April 5, 2014, 10:41 p.m.
The Wild's Matt Cooke checks the Blackhawks' Andrew Shaw (65) in the second period Thursday, April 3, 2014, in Chicago.

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Matt Cooke is full of wisdom these days.

He is a changed man, no longer hockey's bad boy, and he loves his role as mentor for a Minnesota Wild team battling to reach the Stanley Cup playoffs.

His thoughts, though, still drift back to Pittsburgh. He had a message for the rest of the Eastern Conference playoff field Saturday.

“You can never count out the Penguins,” Cooke said.

The 35-year-old veteran knows Boston has emerged as the favorite to win the Eastern Conference. Cooke knows all about the Bruins. They ended his Pittsburgh career in June, sweeping the favored Penguins in the Eastern Conference final.

He also knows the Penguins might be on cruise control and are flirting with becoming the Atlanta Braves of the 1990s: the would-be dynasty that produced only one championship.

Still, Cooke believes in his old mates.

“Systematically, the way they play, and when you add the talent that that organization has, they have a chance,” he said. “It's a credit to the ownership and the management they have in place there.”

The third line has been a shell of itself without Cooke, who manned its left wing for five seasons with the Penguins.

He explained how he became such a steady bottom-six producer.

“Ask any third- or fourth-line guy, and they want to be a scorer,” Cooke said. “The biggest thing for me was understanding at a young age that there aren't teams made up of four scoring lines. I always wanted to give the team energy, be a physical presence. You take pride in that.”

Cooke still takes pride in the relationship he possesses with many Penguins.

“(Pascal Dupuis) and I are close,” Cooke said. “(Kris Letang) and I are close. I stay in touch with (Sidney Crosby). There are a lot of guys I still talk with. That comes with winning. There's a bond there that will last forever.”

Cooke also played for the Vancouver Canucks and Washington Capitals, but he said games against the Penguins feel different.

“There is always emotion involved when you play an ex-team,” he said. “But when I look back at my old games against Vancouver, it doesn't quite have that level of excitement.”

Cooke became a controversial figure in Pittsburgh and the poster boy for NHL discipline. The Penguins worked with Cooke to help the Belleville, Ontario, native improve himself on and off the ice.

He has taken his new approach to Minnesota, where he has become a vital member of the Wild. Cooke said that, while teammates in Pittsburgh respected him, almost all of them won a Stanley Cup for the first time in 2009. They did it together. Now, playing on a Wild team that has enjoyed little postseason success, Cooke has become the wise veteran players ask questions.

He's all too happy to provide answers.

“We got exactly what we were hoping for,” said Minnesota coach Mike Yeo, who pushed for the Wild to sign Cooke to a three-year deal last summer. Yeo was an assistant coach when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009.

“We got leadership,” Yeo said. “We knew there were a lot of intangibles with Cookie. It's what he does in the locker room. We've got a very young team. He's been a big help to those young players.”

Yeo said he expects Cooke to thrive in the playoffs, noting that he always was a strong playoff performer with the Penguins.

Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jyohe@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.

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