The Bruins have the Penguins exactly where they want them. After one game, the similarities between their first-round exit last season against the Flyers and the way they came collectively unglued in a 3-0 Game 1 loss to the Bruins already bode well for the Black and Gold.
Steel City sweetheart Sidney Crosby has already reached a Steel Magnolias level of tears, complaining both on the ice and to the press. Evengi Malkin showed the judgement of Joe Vitale and willingly removed himself from a potentially game-tying power play by fighting Patrice Bergeron. And after only giving up three goals, Tomas Vukoun is somehow coming under scrutiny, even though Marc-Andre Fleury probably has to swaddle himself in Depends just to sit on the bench during games with this much pressure.
With things going this well for the Bruins, the game plan for Game 2 should be more of the same from Claude’s crew, with one important caveat: Leave Matt Cooke alone.
Before I explain, let’s review the facts.
- Cooke boarded Adam McQuaid and knew what he was doing from the moment he saw Quaider’s digits. You shouldn’t need Eugene Melnyk and CSI Ottawa to break it down for you.
- Cooke is a dirty player. Maybe one of the dirtiest in NHL history.
- Cooke is incapable of reforming himself when the stakes are highest. He never “changed his game,” he merely tried to hide it. But the NHL playoffs are sodium pentothal. They strip away the fallacies and expose you for what you are. And Matt Cooke is who we thought he was. This "reform" nonsense was Career-Preservation 101, and I don’t care if he supposedly found God. Lots of death row inmates find religion as well. Would you let any of them back into society? Cooke’s an animal, and a dog with his history would have been put down at least three times over by now.
- The league dropped the ball by not suspending Cooke. If Erik Gryba, a player with no history of supplemental discipline, was suspended for two games after a clean but bloody hit, Brendan Shanahan should have sent Cookie to the showers for the series based on reputation alone. Esthetics shouldn’t matter for Gryba and not Cooke. And Adam McQuaid shouldn’t have to be fitted for a toe tag for a dangerous hit to be deemed suspension-worthy.
Now with all that being said, this is not the time to settle any scores.
Going out of the way to target Cooke for retribution could potentially derail all the momentum the Bruins have behind them.
Don’t believe me? Just look at the last time the Bruins tried to exact a pound of flesh from the Penguins’ designated assassin. The rematch between the Bruins and the Penguins at TD Garden after Cooke elbowed Marc Savard in the head had all the buildup of a UFC grudge match. The payoff? A letdown on par with the Lost series finale. Cooke squared off with Shawn Thornton, refused to remove his half shield and cowered on the ice after a couple of punches from the Bruins enforcer. What resulted after that much-hyped anticlimax? The Bruins seemed to lose focus and proceeded to turn in a listless effort in a 3-0 defeat.
Want more evidence? Take a trip back to the 1991 Prince of Wales Conference Finals. After the gutless Ulf Sammuelson took out Cam Neely, the Bruins lost their composure. From coach Mike Milbury on down, they became more obsessed with Ulfie than winning the series. How else could you explain Chris Nilan, Lyndon Byers and Nevin Markwart (who lost more fights than the French) cracking the Game 4 lineup in a conference finals? Losing their focus in the name of settling a score cost that team a 2-0 series lead and ushered them right out of the playoffs.
Much like Ulfie, Cooke has no honor and doesn’t obey “the code.” As we all saw before, there is no way to extract justice from him willingly. There are only two ways to settle a score with him and reap a shred of satisfaction. There is the avenue Tie Domi chose when he fed Sammuelson a karma sandwich, which nowadays would result in peanut allergy levels of over-reactionary punishment from the league.
Or the Bruins can take the path that the Detroit Red Wings took after Claude Lemiuex broke Kris Draper’s face.
Bide your time and ambush when the perpetrator least expects it. This takes patience, but the payoff is worth it. The Red Wings waited until the final regular season match up the following year before Darren McCarty and his line mates dished out one of the most historically enjoyable bits of on ice justice the NHL had ever seen.
As much as I’d love to see Claude go the full Reggie Dunlop and put a bounty on Cookie’s head, the smarter play is let him come back and leave him alone. Make sure he knows there is a score to be settled, just not when. Cooke will already be tentative, because he has to know the NHL will make his next misstep his last. Add in the potential that retribution could be lurking for him or one of his teammates on every shift, and a coward like Cooke will be playing tentative hockey for the rest of the series.
With the Penguins imploding before them, the last thing the Bruins should do is to give Pittsburgh a cause to rally behind. A jihad against Cooke, no matter how deserving, could be just the thing to right them emotionally and get them back into the series.
The best way to pay back Cooke and the two-faced organization that he plays for is to hand them a playoff loss they never saw coming. There will be time next season to settle Cooke’s tab. And hopefully, if the Bruins get lucky, Cooke won’t see that coming either.