Matt Cooke deserved the suspension he received for his actions in a game March 20 against the Rangers. That said, I knew the Penguins would miss his on-ice contributions. It didn’t really show immediately after the fact, when the Pens closed the regular season 8-2 minus Cooke.
But it’s playoff time, and Cooke’s absence is being felt. Tampa Bay scored two power-play goals in Friday’s convincing victory. It’s not outrageous to suggest that Cooke’s presence on the PK might have made a difference. Perhaps more importantly, Cooke’s physicality and grittiness have not been adequately replaced. Cooke’s an agitator, and the Pens don’t really have anyone else in that mold. In addition, the Pens are getting virtually nothing offensively from the guy currently taking his spot in the lineup.
The penalty kill obviously kept it together over the course of the final 10 regular-season games and in Game 1 of the postseason. But Cooke is one of the unit’s top players, and it was only a matter of time before it suffered without him. Max Talbot can play a good in-your-face type of game, but he’s no Cooke. That’s not a slight; few are. Chris Conner had a fine season, but he has 1 goal since Jan. 20, a span of 35 games. Granted, a lot of players aren’t pulling their weight in the goal-scoring department, but Conner is the guy holding Cooke’s roster spot until the suspension is over.
Cooke’s transgressions have hurt the team on a couple of occasions this season. But his most recent suspension is damaging at the worst possible time – the playoffs. Cooke’s been there before, and he knows what it takes to succeed in the postseason. He may be one of the dirtiest players in the league, but this team was built with Cooke as a piece of the puzzle. Right now, I think the Pens are missing that piece.