Cooke continues to answer for 'the hit'

PITTSBURGH -- A playoff series is probably the last place to go to forget about the past.

The past is always clanging into the present and even the future, especially at the start of an NHL playoff series.

What are the connections? Where are the lines of intersection?

What is the shared history between the two organizations and the players who populate those organizations?

Boston Bruins defenseman Matt Bartkowski went to Mount Lebanon High School outside Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh Penguins winger Jarome Iginla spurned the Bruins and agreed to be traded this season to Pittsburgh.

Sidney Crosby and Patrice Bergeron have a bond that dates to the 2005 World Junior Championships.

• And, of course, there is Matt Cooke and his blindside hit on Marc Savard in March 2010, a hit that precipitated the end of Savard’s career.

There have been a lot of twists and turns in the paths of both players and their teams since that night.

Savard, of course, returned to action the following season, but a hit from Matt Hunwick, a former teammate, during a game in Denver in early 2011 essentially ended Savard’s playing days. We run into him occasionally, and it’s clear the struggles to deal with concussion issues have been many and varied and continue to take their toll.

By any standard, it is a sad story of a solid career cut short.

Cooke has endured something of an odyssey, as well, brushing up against the end of his days as an NHL player following a suspension for the final 10 games of the regular season and first round of the 2011 playoffs for an elbow to the head of New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh.

With the Penguins on record as saying Cooke would need to change his ways to stay with the team -- and, effectively, in the league -- Cooke has had a mostly unblemished record since. There was an incident with Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson during which Karlsson’s Achilles tendon was lacerated by Cooke’s skate, costing Karlsson most of the lockout-shortened regular season. But few outside Senators ownership believed it was anything more than a hockey play gone bad.

But with the Penguins set to face the Bruins in the Eastern Conference finals, beginning Saturday at Consol Energy Center, Cooke was asked Thursday whether the Savard incident might be an issue.

“I can’t control other people’s opinions,” he said. “I’ve learned that fans have emotions towards certain things, and they’re going to be attached to them.”

Say what you will about Cooke -- and it’s fair to say most of it has indeed been said, and with all the colorful language you might expect in relation to one of the game’s most-polarizing figures -- the rugged winger is unfailingly patient about answering questions about the past.

“I need to go out and prepare to play against the Bruins to the best of my ability. If I’m worried about that, it’s going to affect me in a negative way,” he said.

Certainly, it seems, if time doesn’t heal all wounds, it at least prompts folks to forget at least a little. Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma figures that’s not necessarily in many fans’ DNA -- regardless of the steps Cooke has taken to rehabilitate his game and reputation.

“I’m not sure any city or any fans, it’s not in their nature to forget, let it go, turn the page, any of that,” Bylsma said. “I don’t think it was a big storyline, or I didn’t sense it as much this year from their fans.

“If it is any kind of factor in this series, it’s probably going to mean Matt’s playing well and we’re playing well versus the other way around. I don’t think it’s much of a factor to the way the series is going to be played, to the two teams.”

Cooke is having a solid playoffs, leading a Pittsburgh penalty-killing unit that has allowed just four goals on 39 opportunities. He has also chipped in three assists.

Most of that will be lost on those who remain preoccupied with the past, or at least this thin sliver of it.

“His game and his approach to the game and how he plays has changed significantly since then,” Bylsma said. “I’m not sure Matt’s ever going to get away from some of that reputation throughout the league, but he’s put a significant amount of hockey in between his last suspension and how he’s played the last couple of years for us, and he continues to do that for us.

“He was a big factor, one of our best performers in the first two rounds, playing his game, playing well, playing physically.”