PITTSBURGH – The NBC Game of the Week matched the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers in an Atlantic Division battle, but over the next 24 hours the spotlight will shine brightest on Penguins winger Matt Cooke after his elbow to the head of Ryan McDonagh in the third period of a 1-1 game:
The elbow resulted in a game misconduct and major penalty for Cooke, and coach Dan Bylsma spoke of his frustration after the game.
“Anytime you take a penalty like that and put your team down for five minutes, you’re putting your team in a tough spot and it was an undisciplined play,” said Bylsma. “Up to that point, I thought the game was played pretty well by our team.”
One minute and fifty seconds into the extended powerplay, the Penguins actually took a 2-1 lead on a shorthanded goal from an unlikely source. Chris Kunitz, averaging just 28 seconds per game of shorthanded time this season, broke free down the right wing and directed a knuckling shot into the upper-left corner past Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
“The fans were pretty revved up and we had about four shifts [in a row] where guys were blocking shots and doing great things,” Kunitz said. “I just happened to get out there and cause a turnover and put the puck in the net.”
Kunitz’s goal, his 21st of the season, was only the beginning of wild third period.
Just moments later Pittsburgh’s Matt Niskanen was handed a double-minor penalty for a high-stick on Ryan Callahan that drew blood.
“I tried to clear [the puck] and I think [Callahan] lifted my stick and I tried to tie his up and there was no stick there,” Niskanen said. “I got him in the face and he was bleeding and that’s tough timing. It’s poor discipline on my part. I have to keep my stick on the ice and it gave them a full two minutes with a 5-on-3 advantage. I can’t put my team [shorthanded] in that situation.”
Pittsburgh’s top-ranked penalty kill held off the Rangers momentarily until Marian Gaborik found the back of the net to tie the game at two apiece. Bylsma was livid after the goal as he felt Brandon Dubinsky was in the crease and interfering with goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. The coach’s frustration perhaps also stemmed from the fact the Penguins still faced an uphill battle to kill the rest of the Cooke penalty and keep the game tied at that point.
Just eleven seconds later, Callahan buried a bad angle shot over the shoulder of a crouched Fleury and sucked the life out of the sellout crowd on hand at the CONSOL Energy Center.
A late roughing penalty to McDonagh gave Pittsburgh one last opportunity to force the game to overtime, but Lundqvist turned away a flurry of shots before Derek Stepan and Dubinsky added a pair of goals for insurance and the 5-2 win.
The loss leaves the Penguins just one point ahead of Tampa Bay for the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference, but the conversation and debate once again zooms in on Cooke for a questionable hit. The Penguins winger was suspended last month for a hit-from-behind on Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Fedor Tyutin and has quickly gained an unfavorable reputation around the league as a player known for dirty hits.
The NHL General Managers met in Boca Raton, Florida last week with a focus on evaluating the effectiveness of new Rule 48 which prohibits blindside and lateral hits to the head. Penguins GM Ray Shero was the loudest and strongest proponent of eliminating head-shots from the game entirely, and owner Mario Lemieux recently suggested the teams themselves should face financial penalties when their players commit illegal head-shots.
Bylsma acknowledged the organization’s tough stance on head-shots will put the Cooke hit under scrutiny and possibly result in another league suspension.
“I don’t think you can talk about eliminating head-shots from the game, as we have as an organization, and not expect [the Cooke hit] to be examined as that looks to be contact to the head on the play,” Bylsma said after the game. “The league will look at that and treat it as such.”
Kunitz said he didn’t get a chance to see the hit or a replay, but acknowledged the loss of Cooke to suspension could make it tough for the team to beat Detroit, Philadelphia and New Jersey later this week.
“I saw [Cooke] go across the ice and I saw [McDonagh] go down, but I didn’t see the hit,” Kunitz said. “It’s one of things where we need Matt on the ice, he’s a good penalty-killer and a good power forward, but he’s got to know [not to cross] that line.”
Rangers coach John Tortorella declined comment on the hit after the game, but Jesse Spector at the NY Daily News reported that GM Glen Sather said “Don’t worry, he should get 10 games” in reference to a Cooke suspension. With only ten games left in the regular season for the Penguins, a double-digit suspension would put Cooke out of the lineup until the playoffs for Pittsburgh.
Cooke’s repeat offender status will also come into play with any league review and the NHL may take this opportunity to make an example of their increasingly tough stance on illegal hits.
What are your thoughts? Will Cooke face a suspension for his elbow on McDonagh, and if so, how many games will he receive?