Sunday afternoon’s game showed exactly why the Penguins-Capitals rivalry is not only one of the very best in hockey but one of the best in all of sports right now. There was blood, big hits, players — including the Gr8 — sacrificing themselves to block shots, and brawling. It took place in an electrified, redded-out arena. Three key stars were out of the lineup, and a fourth (Mike Green), joined them after less than 20 minutes of play, but in this rivalry, you only need 40 guys in sweaters to expect an added special chapter in a special drama. Sunday again defined what makes this matchup between these two teams so compelling, so can’t-miss.
These teams certainly have respect for one another, but also, they truly hate each other. And in hockey, hate is a very good trait. It’s a rivalry that now extends to the formation of colorful and highly energized fanbases creating a big-game aura in the respective cities that host the showdowns.
Likely January’s Winter Classic upped the stakes between these clubs forever more. There was plenty of dislike for each other on New Years Day: fairly early on, Erskine and Rupp dropped the gloves; you had Ovi’s face-wash of Sidney Crosby that left the Pittsburgh captain helmetless; in the aftermath of Dave Steckel’s (clean) hit on the Pittsburgh captain, which likely inaugurated his present concussion, fresh controversy was birth; and of course the Penguins’ failure to meet the Caps at center ice for an end-of-game handshake. We saw the hate come out again today, although in a much less honorable way.
Hockey has time-honored codes, such as: you do something questionable, something of a physical nature that skirts the line of sanctionable, you better be expected to reckon for it. Dave Steckel knew that, and you can debate until the end of time whether or not his New Years Day hit on Crosby was clean or not, but Stecks answered the challenge he was issued by Tim Wallace on Sunday. It was far from a classic bout, but Stecks met the moment. It was the honorable way to do things, adherence to one of hockey’s codes. Too bad Matt Cooke does not share that same sense of honor.
With time winding down in the third period and the game out of reach for the Penguins, Cooke took yet another cheap shot against one of hockey’s elite performers. The circumstances surrounding it — its timing so late in an already decided game, its target, and Cooke’s status as a repeat offender, all appropriately drew censure from the objective observers in the Verizon Center press box. There are hits to the head which are bad and there are the hits along the boards, when opposing skaters are uniquely vulnerable, that are especially dirty, but there is no hit more dishonorable and more ghastly than the knee-on-knee collision. It’s so anti-hockey. And it is a potential career-ender. That is the exact type of hit Cooke decided to deliver on Ovechkin, and it remains to be seen if the league will sanction Cooke as it should — at long last.
From the black and white side of things, it was called a trip. Cooke earned two minutes in the box. In Bruce Boudreau’s eyes after the game, though, there was no doubt about the insidious aspect of Cooke’s action.
“It’s Matt Cooke, need we say more?” Boudreau exclaimed after the game with his hands raised. “It’s not like it’s his first rodeo. He’s done it to everybody, and then he goes to the ref and says ‘what’d I do’? He knows damn well what he did.
While it was a dirty hit, Cooke could have at least stood up and done the honorable thing after his two minute “tripping,” read kneeing, penalty, and answered hockey’s call for atonement. He had a perfect opportunity to with Matt Bradley coming over the boards and approaching him like a lion on a gazelle. Instead of acquiescing Bradley’s request to tango he skated hard for his bench. Punk. A punk who should be punished — by the league this week, and especially by the Capitals in the teams’ fourth and final meeting this regular season.
These two teams bear an increasing respect-hate for each other because they are both clamoring after the same thing, the Stanley Cup, but the respect aspect of the equation suffers from hits like Matt Cooke’s on Sunday. Until he owns up to it — until the league makes him own up for it — I wouldn’t be surprised if Ovi didn’t take an extra few steps before laying the hurt on him in a few weeks when these two teams meet again. And my bet is he’d do so cleanly.