Four games into the 2011-12 season, the Pittsburgh Penguins are 3-0-1. They’ve forged that early-season success without stalwart defenseman Brooks Orpik, still recovering from off-season abdominal surgery; captain Sidney Crosby, getting closer to being cleared for contact, the next step in his concussion recovery; and, for the past two games, Evgeni Malkin, whose plans for a rebound season have been temporarily stalled due to a lower-body injury.
In the absence of their two biggest offensive stars, the Penguins know they’ll need to get offense by committee. And one player who has stepped up to the challenge in a big way is the one who was the most in need of some redemption after the end of last season – forward Matt Cooke.
With three goals in four games, Cooke is tied for the NHL goal-scoring lead. And while he’s not likely to remain in the Rocket Richard Trophy hunt for long, it’s been a nice start to a year Cooke began knowing that he was on his last chance with the Penguins – and, perhaps, the league – unless he made significant changes to his game and his mindset.
“I made a mistake but, since then, I left the team for a week right after and worked on some things I needed some help with,” he said at the end of last season, after a 17-game suspension for delivering an elbow to the head of the New York Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh left him unable to contribute as the Penguins were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs. “I’ve had a chance to work with some great people outside of hockey, and I will continue to do so.”
He’s also spent a lot of time in the office of head coach Dan Bylsma, reviewing hours and hours of hits to wrap his head around what’s legal and what’s not. It’s a necessity for someone whose repeat-offender status means he now needs to toe the thinnest of lines.
“I want to come back and provide for this team and help this team win, keep my word and do the things I said I would do,” Cooke said. “I did a lot of work to prepare … there are certain situations that are good to go after a hit and others are a chance to go bad. [The learning process] is not going to stop today; it’s going to continue on.
“I’ve made some changes, and I can sit here and talk to you about it until I’m blue in the face, but it’s my job to go out and prove it. And I’m prepared to do that.”
For a player whose strengths have traditionally been as a penalty killer, physical presence and agitator, one thing Cooke probably wasn’t prepared for was scoring twice in the season-opener at Vancouver, where he torched his former club for one goal on the power play, and another shorthanded.
“You’re just trying to have the best game you can, and you just roll with whatever comes,” he said following the 4-3 shootout win. “I feel a sense of joy being out there with my teammates and being able to help them play and, fortunately, tonight I was able to chip in offensively.
“Great effort by our team … it wasn’t perfect for us, but we battled through and got the two points. That’s most important.”
Cooke deflected praise on the goals and focused on the team accomplishment, but couldn’t quite stifle a grin on the bench after his second tally.
“The boys were just chirping me a little,” he said. “It’s just funny. It’s weird how the world works sometimes.”
For Bylsma, the goals were simply a byproduct of a fine overall game from a motivated player getting back to what he does best.
“I can be real clear that we didn’t totally change Matt Cooke into a goal scorer or make that attempt,” the head coach joked. “But I think you saw him play a pretty good game away from the puck. He was able to be physical a couple times, he blocked shots, the penalty kill was effective, and that’s really where Matt Cooke is an effective player. The goals are a bonus … but a real solid game in a lot of areas where Matt can be good.”
Cooke’s efforts weren’t lost on his home crowd when the Penguins returned from their three-game swing through western Canada for Tuesday’s home opener against the Florida Panthers. In pregame player introductions, the loudest ovations were reserved for the usual suspects – Crosby, Malkin and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury – but also for Cooke.
“It’s pretty special,” Cooke said. “I got a huge ovation at the Shirts Off Our Backs [event] at the end of last year, when I still had to go through the suspension. I think I was overwhelmed, and I was just as overwhelmed tonight.”
And the applause kept coming after he drove to the net to put home a slick pass from rookie Joe Vitale to give the Penguins a 2-0 lead, en route to a 4-2 win over the retooled Cats.
“Joey V went flying up with speed and I just yelled at him to let him know I was there,” Cooke said. “He made an unbelievable play and I shot the puck maybe six inches.”
Whether the goals keep coming or not, the work Cooke has invested in reinventing himself – as the best possible version of a grinder who has found a home in a town that appreciates his blue-collar work ethic – is proving to be a success so far.
“I’m not going to put a tutu on and dance around out there,” Cooke said. “There are a lot of situations that can go bad in a hurry, and those are the areas and times where more caution has to be taken.
“I’m fully prepared and I’ve already gone to pretty good lengths to change. I will continue to do so and prove that this is possible.”