It was a confluence of stories when the Pittsburgh Penguins took on the Washington Capitals Thursday.
The 2-1 final score was the Pens' first regulation win over the Capitals in nearly two years. John Erskine had an even-up bout with Arron Asham, Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin took the same ice for the first time in almost a year and blue-chip Simon Despres made a successful NHL debut.
Those continuing threads and the meeting of two Cup hopefuls made for a measuring stick matchup of sorts.
With so much going on, it would be easy to miss a split-second collision as the game's final seconds wound down.
It would be hard to miss that collision if Matt Cooke was delivering the questionable blow instead of receiving it.
For the second time this season, Cooke has been the recipient of the kind of contact the league has systematically cracked down on under Player Safety VP Brendan Shanahan.
For the second time this season, the potentially culpable player skated away without so much as a hearing.
Washington defenseman John Carlson made Cooke's head the principal point of contact in a hit late in Thursday's game. While the two were part of a scramble of players tangled up late in the game's frantic final seconds, Carlson didn't help appearances by giving a strong follow-through on the hit.
The play was not penalized.
In October, Calgary's Cory Sarich also nailed Cooke with a forearm to the head, a shot which was penalized but which was not subject to supplemental review.
Given the press surrounding Crosby's head injuries and the Penguins' clearly defined stance on hits to the head (they are very much against them), stories of this kind become muddled with circumstances surrounding the team.
However, suspensions levied against Penguins players (Kris Letang) and players facing the Penguins (Max Pacioretty) quell any notion of a bias for or against the Penguins.
So is there a bias against Cooke alone?
"I know [the league] looked at the hit," Dan Bylsma said Friday. "I don't think they deemed it worth going further into.
"He's fine." Bylsma said regarding Cooke.
Until this season, Cooke had built a less-than-stellar reputation as a player who delivered dangerous and unnecessary checks. Although he's kept himself clean since sitting out the final 17 games last year following another head shot incident, the stigma has yet to pass.
As for whether that reputation played into the Carlson decision?
"In no way, shape or form do I think [Cooke's] reputation plays into the decision at all," Bylsma said. "I think...he's on the receiving end on this, I don't think there's any kind of spite factor or anything, not at all."
The league didn't have a hearing with Carlson regarding the hit, but offered an explanation for the decision nonetheless.
NHL spokesman John Dellapina, via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
Brendan (Shanahan, who handles supplemental discipline for the NHL) reviewed the entire play from the moment the puck enters the Washington zone.
The Department of Player Safety's view is that, with barely enough time for one last rush, Carlson was desperate to join that rush. He doesn't even see Cooke coming toward him until the last minute (his view of Cooke is obscured by Ovechkin until the last moment) and he actually cringes to avoid contact if you can pause it when they're a couple of feet apart.
The worst-looking part of the play is when Carlson flares out his right arm. But he does that as he's past Cooke, in a "get out of my way, I have to get up ice" kind of way.
Whether or not you like the explanation, credit the league for at least offering some transparency. The Post-Gazette's Dave Molinari also points out that Carlson can still be given notice of a hearing before his next game Saturday, though such a scenario seems unlikely.
It's a bold assumption to say that players are taking liberties with Cooke now that he's begun to refrain from delivering such borderline hits. Cooke has 11 points this season to just eight penalty minutes, and knows he's on the shortest of leashes from the league.
However, if these kinds of hits keep coming without support from the discipline office, the Penguins will be forced to protect Cooke—an agitator and tough guy—on their own.
A response from Cooke might not be met with the same benefit-of-doubt that Carlson and Sarich have received.
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