Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Zdeno Chara #33 of the Boston Bruins mix it up after the whistle towards the end of the second period during Game One of the Eastern Conference Final of the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Consol Energy Center on June 1, 2013 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Photograph by: BRUCE BENNETT, GETTY IMAGES
PITTSBURGH — Patrice Bergeron’s face is a battlefield at the moment. Red rash above his right eyebrow and under his eye, his great Roman nose damaged, with two stitches poking out of a wider red gash across the bridge. Bergeron had fought fellow star Evgeni Malkin in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final the night before, just the second fight of Bergeron’s NHL career, and though his expression was placid, his features were still full of angry memories. When asked if he was upset Malkin had a helmet on during the fight while he did not, Bergeron shrugged and said, “We don’t know what we’re doing, anyway.”
Game 1 held many questions of intent. Boston knew what it was doing — frustrating the Penguins on the way to the first Pittsburgh shutout in 16 months, leading Sidney Crosby to start a melee by getting aggressive with goaltender Tuukka Rask, and the end point of it was Bergeron and Malkin getting five for fighting. Both are great players, but in their absence it was Boston that scored the second goal that truly tilted the game in what would become a 3-0 scoreline. The Bruins play better angry. Pittsburgh, based on recent evidence, does not.
“That emotion, that compete level has to be there,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “It has to be there from our best players. Having said that, when you’re on a power play and your skill players Chris Kunitz and Evgeni Malkin are going off the ice … it’s not something that we want to do, and I think it took away from our game. It certainly took away from our power play going into the third period.”
But one Pittsburgh player crossed the line in a different way. Matt Cooke threw Pittsburgh’s worst hit of the day, boarding Adam McQuaid from behind in the second period. Cooke, of course, is the poster boy for changed behaviour in the NHL. He was given his 17-game suspension for an atrocious elbow to New York’s Ryan McDonough two years ago now, and has been scared straight since. He knows what it means when he crosses the line.
The McQuaid hit was far short of murderous — Brad Marchand’s hit on James Neal in the second was quite arguably worse — and it happens. But it was avoidable, and Cooke slipped into that bad, grey place for the first time in a long time, Eugene Melnyk’s forensic team notwithstanding.
“You know, I chipped the puck in early, just off the red line, I had a bit of an interference run from [Torey] Krug, who pushed me inside,” Cooke said. “After I got by him I look up, I see [McQuaid's] right shoulder, he looks me right in the eyes, I think at the last minute he goes to make a reverse with the puck, but I’ve committed to hit him; I don’t drive him through the boards, but I make contact. I think it’s a penalty, but I don’t think it’s an ejection or a suspension. But that’s my opinion.”
Bruins coach Claude Julien agreed it was a penalty and not a suspension; nobody seemed overly worked up about it. If the hit had been delivered by, say, Brenden Morrow, odds are it would barely be a topic of conversation.
But it was Cooke. Just last week, he was talking about his three-game point streak against Ottawa, and how much it meant to him to be a useful, honest hockey player.
“I just feel like I’m able to do my job without the risk,” Cooke said. “That has a freeing feeling for sure, being out there and being able to trust that I’m not playing a high-risk game, that I’m not out there solely for one purpose, and I’m out there with a job to do, and I can go out and do it.
“I had to change from the onset, change my outlook on how I approached the game; otherwise, there was no chance that I was going to have success. I think that before, you’re so focused on trying to find that line and where to be, and whether it’s on it or before it or across it, there’s risk involved in that. I had to put myself in a position to get there, and now I don’t have to do that. And I’ve enjoyed much more the nuances of the game that I didn’t even realize or recognize happened before.”
When he talks about hits he talks intelligently about angles and options — how to hit a left-handed player across the hands on the forecheck if he’s turning to the glass — and he notes that he forechecks with his stick the vast majority of the time now, instead of attacking with the body. He has studied tape, worked with coaches, to not do pretty much what he did to Adam McQuaid on Saturday night. It means something to him, beyond current employment,
“[Being a useful, honest player] — that’s hopefully, eventually, how I’m remembered,” Cooke said. “I know it’s not the way it is now, and it’s not the way it’s going to be instantly, but hopefully, over time, that’s the way it is.”
“He is someone that you can point to and say, yeah, you can change how someone plays,” Penguins general manager Ray Shero said last week. “And yeah, we could have cut ties with him [in 2011]. It’d have been easier for us. But to cut him loose to justify how we think the game should be played, how does that make us better than anybody else? I signed the guy, and I don’t take the responsibility to try to fix him? … To put him on waivers and make him someone else’s problem and say we’ve done our job? I don’t believe in that.”
Shero was proud of Cooke. It matters because it showed regulation can eliminate the game’s most predatory behaviour, and on the balance Cooke has shown it’s possible. But Shero added a proviso, because he knows how hockey works. “You never know,” Shero said, “because it’s a fast game, something could happen.”
What happened was just a little thing, a piece of the bigger battle, one part of Pittsburgh’s problems in Game 1. Pittsburgh just needs to play hockey. Matt Cooke does, too.
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