PITTSBURGH — Penguins forward Matt Cooke is finding it hard to escape his reputation as a dangerous cheap-shot artist.
Cooke was called for a major penalty and a game misconduct for checking Boston Bruins defenseman Adam McQuaid from behind in the second period of the opener of the Eastern Conference finals Saturday night. After the incident, the game devolved into a series of questionable hits, shouting matches and slap fights. The distracted Penguins lost, 3-0, the first time they were shut out in 97 games.
Sentiment for Cooke has swayed a bit in his favor, but his case is a strange one. He was suspended four times between 2008 and 2011 for illegal hits.
One hit for which he was not suspended, because it was not illegal at the time, was a blindside check to the head of Bruins forward Marc Savard in March 2010, leaving Savard with a concussion.
Savard has not fully recovered and has not played in two years.
Cooke vowed to change after his elbow to McDonagh led to his fourth suspension. And he did: after 18 months with no disciplinary penalties, the NHL effectively cleared his record by dropping his “repeat offender” status.
But that did not clear Cooke’s name. In a collision along the boards in February, his skate blade came down behind the ankle of Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson, slicing Karlsson’s Achilles tendon. The league deemed the play an accident, but Senators owner Eugene Melnyk called Cooke a goon who “should never be playing in this league.”
Two months later, Jack Edwards, a Bruins play-by-play announcer, likened Cooke to Sirhan Sirhan, Robert F. Kennedy’s assassin — a comparison that was seen as especially distasteful because Edwards made it five days after the Boston Marathon bombings. Edwards was referring to Pittsburgh hockey writers’ nomination of Cooke for the Bill Masterton trophy for perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to the game.
“Nominating Cooke for the Masterton is about the equivalent of nominating Sirhan Sirhan as the prisoner of the year,” said Edwards, who later apologized.
Early in the second period Saturday, Cooke hit McQuaid from behind into the boards, sending McQuaid to the ice. It was Cooke’s first major penalty since his 2011 pledge to reform, but his record still appeared to outweigh his good behavior: During a break, NBC showed footage of Cooke’s blindside hit to Savard from three years ago.
In the remainder of the period, Brad Marchand delivered a dangerous hit from behind that sent the Penguins’ James Neal into the boards. He received only a minor penalty.
Sidney Crosby jawed with Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara and exchanged whacks with Boston goalie Tuukka Rask. Evgeni Malkin and Patrice Bergeron exchanged punches.
All the while, Twitter users were abuzz in condemnation of Cooke. But some argued that the hit, while a penalty, did not warrant a suspension. They suggested that McQuaid could be seen looking back at Cooke before the hit, meaning that he was aware Cooke was coming and that he put himself in a vulnerable position.
On Sunday, that point of view seemed to prevail.
“Players have got to understand that there’s somebody coming, so don’t put yourself in a vulnerable position, and the player hitting has to be aware of that too,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said. “I have no issue if he’s not suspended, because I’m not convinced it’s a suspendable thing.”
Cooke offered his take on the play. “I looked up, I see his right shoulder and he looks at me right in the eyes,” he said. “At the last minute, he goes to make a reverse with the puck, but I’ve committed to hit him, and I don’t drive him through the boards — 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.”
McQuaid was noncommittal about the league’s decision not to suspend Cooke.
“It’s behind me,” he said, although he did gently take issue with the idea that he put himself in jeopardy.
“I don’t think anyone wants to put themselves in a position like that,” McQuaid said. “I was a little bit shocked — I wasn’t expecting the play.”
Cooke was asked if he thought his poor reputation led to his five-minute major and ejection rather than a simple two-minute minor.
“I don’t believe in that at all,” Cooke said. “I think the referees are trying to do the best job to call the game.”