The Sabres face off against the Pittsburgh Penguins tomorrow night. For Buffalo, the standings are the first thing to come to mind regarding the matchup.
However, fans be warned: little 5’11” Matt Cooke is on a warpath, a path it seems he was assigned to pursue since lacing up his skate’s for Mario Lemieux’s Penguins.
Fans will likely recount Mario’s recent statement on February 13, following, well, one of the most brutal brawls the NHL has seen in a long, long time. From The Hockey Writers:
Brawls erupted in a Friday night game between his Penguins and the New York Islanders that left the entire hockey world stunned. Pittsburgh’s Eric Godard received an automatic 10-game suspension for leaving the bench to join in a fight, Matt Martin of the Islanders was suspended four games for punching Max Talbot from behind, and Trevor Gillies was given a nine-game suspension for a vicious elbow and attack on defenseless Penguins prospectEric Tangradi.
Tangradi remains out of the lineup with his second concussion in less than a year and the Islanders organization was fined $100,000 for a “failure to control their players.”
The next day, Mario’s statement, which declared “If the events relating to Friday night reflect the state of the league, I need to re-think whether I want to be a part of it.”
Fair enough, until you consider what Matt Cooke has done under the assignment of Lemieux, and how Lemieux himself has played a major role in the dangerous evolution of play that he so stridently decried.
Cooke joined the Pens on July 5th, 2008. Until then, Cooke had only earned a single suspension – just once, in ten seasons of hockey. Way back on February 19, 2004, he was suspended for 2 games for spearing Matt Johnson of the Minnesota Wild. (He also was fined $2,500 for a hit on Vincent Lecavalier on April 3, 2008, but not suspended.)
Over the years, Cooke had gathered up a reputation as a hard hitting cheap shot artist, but never the kind continually subjected to NHL lawmen. Heck, until ’08, when he joined the Pens, Cooke had registered over 100 penalty minutes in a season one time. Again, that was just once, over ten seasons of hockey.
In his 1st season with the Pens, he recorded 101 PIM’s. In his 2nd season, 106. Now in his 3rd season, he already has 110 PIM’s in just 62 games. It’s an upwards trend, folks, but the PIM’s are barely the issue for Mario’s “hitman.”
Indeed, it wasn’t until he was signed by Lemieux’s pen that his game went from gritty, borderline dangerous, to horrific, borderline crippling. The suspensions came quickly, and they came often.
January 20, 2009: Cooke didn’t’ waste much time breaking NHL law in his first campaign with the Pens. His hit to the head on Scott Walker earned him a 2 game suspension.
November 28, 2009: Cooke receives another 2 game suspension, this time for a hit to the head of Artem Anisimov.
March 7, 2010: Cooke blindsides Marc Savard, delivering a crushing blow that concusses Savard severely. There was no rule in place at the time that could be used to discipline Cooke, but the hit was so terrible that it caused the NHL to implement “Rule 48” in the off-season to help curb such attacks to the head.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman lamented “I was very unhappy and upset with that hit. I was more upset there was nothing (in the League rules at the time) to do to punish it.” Bruin’s GM Peter Chiarelli called the hit “a very surgical hit to the head.” Don Cherry called Cooke “gutless.” Cooke’s own teammate, veteran Bill Guerin, said “If a guy gets hurt like that with a shot to the head, there’s got to be something (a suspension).” Vincent Lecavalier complained “He’s got no respect for other players… he’s been doing that for a long time.” We’ll touch more on that later.
February 9, 2011: Cooke earns a 4 game suspension after driving Fedor Tyutin into the boards from behind. Tyutin called it “the worst hit I’d ever received.”
So, what of the incidents prior to Rule 48 that Cooke got away with? (Spoiler alert: they have all occurred with the Penguins.)
November 29, 2008: Cooke drives Zach Parise into and through the boards with the bench door open. Parise did not have the puck.
March 17, 2009: Cooke takes several strides and plants his leg into the leg of Zach Bogosian, who luckily escaped injury on the play that could have destroyed his knee.
May 18, 2009: Another knee-on-knee hit, this time from the blindside – Cooke’s victim was Eric Cole.
June 2, 2009: While on the ice in the crease, Cooke kicks his skate blade upwards and makes contact with netminder Chris Osgood. The play goes unnoticed by the officials.
February 6, 2011: Cooke goes knee-to-knee again, this time on Alex Ovechkin.
Said Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau: “It was Matt Cooke. Need we say more? It’s not like it’s his first rodeo. He’s done it to everybody and then he goes to the ref and says: ‘What did I do?’ He knows damn well what he did! There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s good at it and he knows how to do it. He knows how to pick this stuff.”
So how does a hockey player go from one suspension (and one fine) in ten years of hockey, to 3 suspensions, an incident so egregious that the NHL had to make a rule to protect those who skate around him, and 5 other grossly negligent incidents?
You can blame the player all you want. Bruce Boudreau would quickly do so. But a player is given a job to do when he joins up with a team. With Pittsburgh, his job has been to play – increasingly – like an animal.
Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma is his handler, and none other than Mario Lemieux is his master. In the NHL, the tip is handed to the player on the bench, but the buck stops with the owner – and Matt Cooke is not going to stop assaulting the players of the NHL until Lemieux comes to his senses and slaps a choke chain back on his dog. Hopefully he does it before someone’s career is ended, or heavens forbid – someone is killed.
The Sabres are a banged up team, folks. Sure, two points would be great. But getting out of Pittsburgh with everyone’s brains unrattled and their knees intact would be a blessing in itself.
Go Sabres. And go carefully.