Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - For a few years, we've been hearing how Matt Cooke has reformed his ways and become the NHL's version of a model citizen.
Cooke himself shattered that new image to pieces Monday night with a sad return to his dark past.
It's been slightly over three years since the Minnesota forward was last suspended, but after delivering a vicious knee-on-knee hit against Colorado's Tyson Barrie in the teams' first-round playoff series, that's all about to change. The only thing left to figure out is how long the likely seventh suspension of his career will last.
Cooke will face an in-person hearing with the league, meaning he could receive a suspension of more than five games. New NHL disciplinarian Stephane Quintal will have some extra time to ponder the decision, as the Wild and Colorado have two days off before meeting again in Thursday's Game 4 battle in Minnesota.
Since it's been more than 18 months since Cooke was last suspended, the letter of the law under the latest collective bargaining agreement doesn't recognize him as a repeat offender. But that only applies to any fine Cooke may receive. As far as suspensions go, Cooke's lurid past is fair game when it comes to levying a proper punishment.
While the league has made a concerted effort to eliminate head shots from the game, knee-on-knee hits have taken a back seat. That's partly due to the relationship between blows to the head and concussions, but also because determining intent on knee-to-knee collisions can be difficult.
The incident between Cooke and Barrie on Monday, however, was of the black and white variety. Some knee-on-knee collisions are accidental, others are possibly avoidable but not malicious in nature, and then there are ones that look like what Cooke did to Barrie.
Early in the third period, Cooke had a chance to deliver a clean hit on Barrie, who was attempting to move the puck out of his own zone. Just as Barrie released the puck, Cooke extended his right leg into Barrie's path and took out the Colorado defenseman's left leg.
The damage was immediately apparent as Barrie tumbled to the ice in obvious pain. Mere seconds later, Barrie was skating to the bench on one foot, but before he made his way into the locker room, a TSN broadcaster situated between the benches heard the young blueliner say, "I'm done."
Colorado Avalanche head coach Patrick Roy announced shortly after the game that Barrie would miss four-to-six weeks of action due to an injured medial collateral ligament.
It's a big loss for the Avs as the 22-year-old Barrie had become an important part of Colorado's blue line.
As Roy pointed out Monday night, Cooke was given only a two-minute minor for kneeing. With the score tied 0-0 at the time, a five-minute major could've been a turning point in the game for Colorado, which instead lost in overtime after a highlight-reel goal from Mikael Granlund.
"A knee on Tyson Barrie, without a doubt, that's the play of the game," Roy said. "We lost our best offensive defenseman, and I think it could have been a five-minute major. Plus, I think that would have broken (the Wild's) momentum."
Colorado still owns a 2-1 lead in the series, but it lost its best goal-scoring option from the back end for the remainder of the playoff battle with the Wild. Like Cooke's litany of transgressions, the length of Barrie's injury should weigh heavy on Quintal's mind when he and deputy commissioner Bill Daly work on coming up with a suitable penalty for Cooke.
My best guess is we won't see Cooke again in this series at the very least. While he's gone, Cooke will have time to do some soul searching. Maybe this return to the realm of dangerous hits was just a momentary lapse of reason for a guy who really has worked hard on reforming his ways, but that means little in the wake of Monday's incident.
Cooke had a career-high 129 penalty minutes in 67 games with Pittsburgh back in 2010-11, which also happened to be the last season in which he was given a suspension. In 212 regular season games since that campaign, the 35-year-old only has acquired 134 penalty minutes, with 54 PIM coming in 82 games with the Wild this season.
The drop in penalty minutes combined with Cooke's own assurances that he was actively trying to turn his image around. But it shouldn't surprise anybody that he eventually veered off the path. Emotions run high in the postseason, and like many other guys in the league, Cooke was bound to lose his cool at some point.
That being said, it does no good to stand there, point at Cooke and say, "I told you so." He did something wrong and will pay for it, but banning him from the league forever, especially after he's made a true effort to change his ways, is simply not going to happen.
No matter how long Cooke gets suspended for, the real cost for him is that he has to live with the reputation he has earned.
Back in March 2011, I wrote a piece titled: "Can exiled Cooke change his game?" (http://tinyurl.com/lxznq28) about a lengthy suspension Cooke received for a hit on New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh. That hit, and the 17- game suspension that followed it, was seen as a turning point in Cooke's career. One can't help but think he is back to square one after lunging into Barrie with a well-timed knee.
In that piece from over three years ago, I suggested Cooke's bad behavior would follow him around for a long time, saying his "well-earned bad rep will remain with him for the rest of his career, and perhaps even longer."
That was speculative at the time, but right now it feels like it could be Cooke's reality.