By: Casey Shea

Heading into today’s game with the New York Rangers, the Pittsburgh Penguins were only six points behind the Philadelphia Flyers for the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference lead. Heading into the third period of a 1-1 hockey game, the Penguins had controlled the play, had outworked the Rangers in every way possible and two points almost seemed certain.

That is, until Matt Cooke happened.

At 4:36 of the third period, Cooke delivered an elbow to the jaw of Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who didn’t get up too quickly after the hit. Cooke was immediately assessed a five-minute major and a game misconduct, which proved to be the turning point in the game.

If you haven’t seen the hit, you can watch it here.

After a Chris Kunitz shorthanded goal, Matt Niskanen was sent off for a four-minute double-minor for high sticking. The Rangers had 1:46 of 5-on-3 to deal with and scored twice to take two points back to Broadway.

All of this was set up by Cooke’s ill-advised elbow.

A couple things puzzle me about his actions, antics, shenanigans or however else you want to classify what happened today.

First, weren’t the NHL General Manager meetings held just last week? Wasn’t the major topic of discussion head shots and how to get them out of the game? Didn’t Gary Bettman institute a new five-step initiative regarding head shots and concussions?

With that being said, shouldn’t every player in the NHL feel like they’re under a microscope right now, knowing that any questionable hit could result in a suspension? If you’re Matt Cooke, don’t you have to feel like the league is almost looking for a reason to levy a suspension or a fine against you?

If that’s the case, how in the world do you go out there today and drop an elbow on the kid’s jaw?

I don’t think it’s a big stretch to say that his actions cost the Pens the game today. The Niskanen penalty hurt, no question, but it was only an accident. Unintentional high sticking penalties are called all the time. What made today’s call even more painful was the Penguins were already killing Cooke’s major.

I also don’t think it’s a stretch to think that any shot at the division crown, much less the top seed in the Eastern Conference is now shot too. What about home ice in the first round? That may be in more jeopardy than it’s been in months because of what Cooke did today.

Secondly, what’s going to happen when the playoffs start? Let’s assume the NHL doesn’t throw the book at Cooke and he’s eligible to return for the first round.

If he pulls this kind of stunt in the playoffs, it may not just cost them a game. It might cost them the series.

Outside of his issues, he brings a lot to the team in the form of penalty killing and grit, but this foolish behavior on the ice needs to cease immediately.

I’ve said previously that I can only defend Cooke to a point. Let’s make one thing abundantly clear. I cannot and will not defend what he did today. If he was looking to get back at McDonagh for something that transpired earlier in the game, then it was a selfish move on his part. I’m hoping that’s not the case, but only he knows what was going through his head when he went high on the hit.

Let’s shift gears to talk about the potential suspension coming shall we?

I fully believe that he will be suspended for throwing an elbow that may make Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson rename his People’s Elbow move. At least Cooke kept his elbow pad on, but I digress.

Considering Cooke was handed a four-game suspension for his hit from behind on Fedor Tyutin earlier this season, I don’t see how the NHL can suspend him for any less than five games. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the NHL hand down a suspension in the 8-10 game range, but then again this is the NHL we’re talking about.

You know, the same league that only suspended Matt Martin for four games and Trevor Gillies for nine games for their roles during the melee on Long Island. The Gillies suspension only blew up in the NHL’s face when he hit Minnesota’s Cal Clutterbuck in the head early in the second period of his first game back from the suspension. Considering he should have been suspended for 15-plus games for his actions in the game against the Pens, the league then upped his latest suspension for the Clutterbuck hit by one game to 10.

So, based on that logic, will Cooke only get a five-game suspension? Time will tell as the Pens are back in action tomorrow night, so we should know soon.

Now, there’s the issue of what happens if the league does only suspend him for five games or less. Will the Penguins step in and set an example to the rest of the league and levy their own suspension?

I’ve always defended Mario Lemieux and will continue to do so. The statement he released following the lenient suspensions handed down to Gillies and Martin was entirely warranted. However, add that in with his proposal to the league about fining the organization for these types of hits and today’s incident puts him in a very tough position.

Should a slap on the wrist be given to Cooke and if Lemieux sits back and stays quiet, all the critics who said he was wrong to release his initial statement will come back out in full force. You know, the ones saying “How can the man who employs Matt Cooke talk about cheap shots?”

Take the Rangers for example.  Sean Avery was scratched for tonight’s game. It’s the third time in the last four games that they’ve left their pest in the press box. The Penguins could send a message to Cooke by doing the same thing. Maybe it would finally sink in that he needs to alter his game and get away from the negative spotlight. He’s a player that makes a living playing on the edge. I get that. However, for someone who plays on the edge, shouldn’t he have a firm understanding of where the line is by now? He’s certainly crossed it enough times.

With an influx of injured forwards close to returning to the lineup, head coach Dan Bylsma can create some friendly competition for roster spots. If one player is acting out and doing things that hurt the team, guess who may not dress for the next game?

We can all sit around and joke about how half the penalty calls against Cooke recently were made because of the nameplate on the back of his sweater. Today’s elbow is no joking matter and he’s now given the NHL the chance to play with their new head shot guidelines.

This isn’t just about Cooke either. This is about the state of the league at the moment. Players need to learn that these types of hits are not acceptable and if that means making an example out of a guy, I’m all for it.

The proverbial puck is in the NHL’s rink. Let’s see what they do with it.

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