The Pittsburgh Penguins’ erratic, volatile enforcer Matt Cooke will decide Game 2 between the Penguins and Ottawa Senators.
Let me clarify that: His play probably will have nothing to do with the outcome of the game. In seven playoff games, Cooke has yet to earn a goal or assist.
It is everything else he brings to the ice that the Senators must somehow find a way to neutralize. Cooke gives Pittsburgh the muscles, grit and fearlessness a team with its eyes on the Stanley Cup needs.
Even though he does not produce much in the way of tangible numbers, Cooke has a plus-four rating in the playoffs while he is on the ice. He makes the Penguins become much more dangerous in ways traditional statistics cannot quantify.
Oh yeah, and the entire city of Ottawa hates him.
It all started in February during a routine matchup between the Penguins and Senators. The blade of Cooke’s skate cut the Achilles tendon of Ottawa defenseman Erik Karlsson, ending his season.
Ottawa fans believe that Cooke intentionally took out Karlsson and have yet to forgive him. In fact, the Red Scarf Union (a group of diehard Senators fans) recently held an official “Matt Cooke Hate Fest” complete with an old-timey "Wanted" poster for Cooke.
Senators owner Eugene Melnyk had some strong words for Cooke in a statement to ESPN:
“To have [Karlsson] taken out by a goon is unconscionable. Whether it was accidental, or whether it was reckless, or whether it was intentional, to me it doesn’t matter. It’s something that never should have happened. [Cooke] should never be playing in this league. It’s a league for elite players.”
To be fair, Cooke is a certified goon. He has been suspended five times in his NHL career, including a 10-game suspension for an illegal hit to the head of the New York Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh.
But that is precisely what makes Cooke such an X-factor in this series. The man could take out a team’s best player without batting an eyelash. He is just that kind of guy.
He might even play hockey once in a while. He had eight goals and 13 assists in the regular season. Those are not flashy numbers, but they prove that Cooke can occasionally do more than play the thug role.
There is a lot of bad blood between Cooke and the Senators. He is clearly in their heads, considering the passionate outpouring of hate towards him from the Ottawa faithful.
Between that and his potential to cause chaos on the ice, Cooke may be the difference in Game 2 without ever recording a point.