PITTSBURGH, Pa. - The Pittsburgh Penguins love forward Matt Cooke for his dirty goals and the big hits he delivers that keep opponents on edge and off their game.
The rest of the NHL largely dislikes—some players use the word "hate"—Cooke for his perceived dirty play and the borderline hits that led the league to rewrite its rule book.
"It's Matt Cooke," Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said after Cooke's leg clipped star Alex Ovechkin's late in a Feb. 6 game, upending Ovechkin and resulting in a fight. "Need we say more? It's not his first rodeo. He's done it to everybody."
What everybody in hockey remembers Cooke's blindside hit to the head that left Boston forward Marc Savard motionless and unconscious last March 7 in Pittsburgh.
The devastating blow not only sidelined Savard for two months, it has adversely affected his career. While Savard returned for Boston's final playoff series last spring, he didn't play again until Dec. 2, and he was shut down for the rest of the season after sustaining another concussion Jan. 22 against Colorado.
Savard won't decide until an undetermined date in the future whether he will try to resume his career next season.
While Cooke wasn't suspended for the shoulder-to-the-head hit, the NHL quickly enacted Rule 48 to legislate against checks to the head. Throughout the league, it's known as the Matt Cooke rule.
"It's perception," Cooke said Monday, the one-year anniversary of the Savard hit, when asked whether he has been judged too harshly for a play that wasn't penalized.
This season, Cooke was given a four-game suspension costing him about US$88,000 in pay for driving Columbus defenceman Fedor Tyutin into the boards Feb. 8.
Still, Cooke said Rule 48 has forced him to alter his style, even though he insists he is as physical and as agitating as ever.
"Oh, it's affected my game. I mean, there's new rules in place that change the way you approach the game," said Cooke. "If that (Bruins) game was today, I wouldn't have hit (him) at that point in time. Just for the risk of contact to the head."
Cooke also feels badly that Savard was severely hurt, and he insists he never delivered the hit with the intent to harm.
"Yeah, you don't want to see any of your fellow workers (be out) due to injury," Cooke said. "It's unfortunate, I guess, head injuries."
As the Penguins are learning in the worst possible way.
While Rule 48 legislated against some hits to the head, it didn't encompass all of them. The NHL's top star, Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, has been out two months and two days with concussion-related injuries following hits by Washington's David Steckel on Jan. 1 and Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman on Feb. 5.
Steckel wasn't penalized for his apparently inadvertent hit that dropped Crosby seconds before the end of the second period of the Winter Classic in Pittsburgh, but Hedman drew a boarding call for slamming Crosby into the glass four days later. Crosby played in that game because he showed no signs of a concussion following the Washington game.
"You look at Sid and he's going through a lot of the same symptoms (as Savard)," Cooke said. "It can happen from a harmless hit. It doesn't have to be from anything outrageous. They (head hits) are tough situations."
Crosby attended the Penguins' off-day practice Monday, but there still wasn't any word whether he might be closer to returning—or if his season has ended.
Whether it was because Crosby was hurt, or any possible regrets about the Savard hit, Cooke has appeared to be more cognizant of not delivering head-high hits, saying he has pulled away from hits he once would have made. Last month, coach Dan Bylsma said Cooke has been called to his office multiple times for not finishing hits.
"But, the way he can make an opponent think when he's on the ice, he's great to have on our side," Penguins forward Pascal Dupuis said. "I played against him for seven years before being a teammate of his and obviously hated him. He's real effective at his game."
Penguins defenceman Matt Niskanen has changed his opinion of Cooke since being traded from Dallas to Pittsburgh last month. Cooke, who has 11 goals and 17 assists in 62 games, has shown Niskanen more of an offensive touch than he expected, although Cooke has only three goals in 24 games.
"I like him now. He's a real agitator, a thorn-in-your-side kind of guy, hard to play against," Niskanen said. "He's going to be a factor in most games. He's one of those guys you love to have on your team, but he's a pain in the butt to play against."