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Fresh Cooking

When Matt Cooke arrived at Penguins training camp two months ago to begin his career anew at the age of 33, he spent most of his time talking about the team-record 17-game suspension he served last spring for his wayward elbow on the Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh.

He went down the runway after being ejected late in that March 20 game and never came back, watching numbly as the Penguins finished a remarkably strong regular season and then blew a 3-1 series lead against Tampa Bay in the first round.

Hi’s long, long off-season included lots of video sessions aimed at trying to unlock the reasons for the behavior that had led to four suspensions and 25 games out of the lineup since joining the Penguins in the summer of 2008. He led the league in introspection this summer.

The Belleville, Ont. native said all the right things in speaking publicly this fall about the suspension, its effect on him and how he planned to come back as a different player – but not too different, given the fact his game depends on a physical element. He also noted repeatedly that talking about it all was the relatively easy portion of the plan, and that it meant little until he proved himself on the ice.

Ten games do not a season make, but as the Penguins concluded their insanely busy October schedule, Cooke was in fact reinventing himself very successfully.  

He hasn’t been quite as physical in coach Dan Bylsma’s system, putting himself on pace to record only half as many hits as he averaged per game last season and about two hits fewer per game than he averaged in his first season in Pittsburgh. But when he’s in on the forecheck now, Cooke says, he’s less concerned with flatting opponents and more focused on winning the puck, certainly a reasonable approach.

The upside? Cooke was getting more ice time per game than he saw last season, and that included more ice time on the penalty kill – no easy task on a team with five effective penalty-killing forwards now that Richard Park has returned to Pittsburgh. Cooke therefore was a major contributor to a penalty killing effort that was leading the NHL again at a crazy 97 percent; he also was leading the NHL in short-handed points, having scored at Vancouver in the season opener and set up Pascal Dupuis’ short-handed goal two weeks later in Minnesota.

But there was more. Cooke was second among the team’s forwards in blocked shots. He was third on the team in goals and fourth in scoring after the fastest offensive start in his NHL career. Only Deryk Engelland had a better plus-minus mark, and Cooke had only one minor penalty in those first 10 games.

After an initial rash of media coverage, Cooke’s journey toward becoming a permanently different player had dropped out of the news, buried under a variety of other local topics that included the imminent return of Sidney Crosby, the surprisingly prolonged absence of Evgeni Malkin from the Pittsburgh lineup, Marc-Andre Fleury’s continued excellence and the scoring heroics of James Neal.

All of which is fine with Cooke. He’s not going to finish the season as the Penguins’ third-leading goal scorer or fourth-leading scorer. He’s going to take a few more penalties. And he’s got a lot of games to go. But with every positive shift he plays under his new mindset, and with every effective game he plays as a forechecking presence and key penalty killer, Cooke is winning his personal battle and helping the team he couldn’t help last April.

And he’s doing something 11 other NHL players hadn’t been able to do since the start of the preseason: avoid Brendan Shanahan.

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