Gorman: Cooke fosters love-hate relationships
TribLIVE Sports Videos
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.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.