PITTSBURGH -- Walking into the Pittsburgh Penguins dressing room at their suburban practice rink yesterday, you had a better chance of interviewing Jimmy Hoffa than Matt Cooke.
"Matt's not here today," a member of the accommodating Pittsburgh media relations staff informed the gaggle of reporters looking to chat with the Penguins' superpest.
Understandable. This was, after all, an optional practice day, one when veterans like Cooke were well within their rights to recharge their batteries after the Pens 3-2 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final Monday at Mellon Arena.
Of course, given that he has become Public Enemy No. 1 down in Raleigh, maybe Cooke was preparing for a steel cage match with all-time grappling great Rick Flair, a huge Carolina booster.
Cooke first raised the ire of Caniacs when his blind-side hit to the noggin of Scott Walker during a regular-season game in January knocked the Carolina forward out of the lineup for two months. Cooke was handed a two-game suspension for his infraction, a mere slap on the wrist in the minds of the Hurricanes.
Despite the Cooke-Walker incident, many of the previews prior to this Eastern Conference final spotlighted the lack of bitterness between the Canes and the Pens. Of course, after the butting of heads between superstars Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin during the Pens' seven-game victory over Washington, it would be hard to come up with a suitable in-your-face encore to that classic encounter.
During Game 4 of that second-round series, Ovechkin seemed to initiate a knee-on-knee hit with Sergei Gonchar, leaving the Penguins defenceman hobbling off the ice. Afterward, Cooke inferred the league's disciplinarians might have a double standard when it comes to who is punished and who is not.
"If I did what he (Ovechkin) did, I wouldn't be on the ice," Cooke said.
Ovechkin was not suspended for the incident.
In the third period Monday night, Cooke was involved in his own knee-on-knee collision, one which left speedy Canes forward Erik Cole limping to the bench. Cole then began yelling at the Pens bench, obviously feeling Cooke's tactics were of the cheap-shot variety.
Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice said he felt it was a knee-on-knee hit, with Cooke being the instigator.
"I just felt that, by the time the collision had happened, there was time to re-adjust and not go there," Maurice said yesterday.
To no one's surprise, Cooke did not share Maurice's view.
"(Cole) was cutting across the middle," Cooke said after the game. "I turned sideways to hit him, and he turned the other way. I almost fell over, too."
The NHL, as it does with all controversial plays, was reviewing the incident yesterday.
Of more concern to the Hurricanes is the status of Cole and fellow forward Tuomo Ruutu, who some claim was slew-footed by Pens defenceman Mark Eaton in the first period.
Cole's injury was described as the popular "lower body" ailment by Canes officials but it appeared he was favouring his left knee. Ruutu also is suffering from a "lower body" issue, which is being described by some as a lower ankle sprain.
In any case, the availability of both for Game 2 tomorrow is up in the air.
"Those are important pieces to what we do in our style," Maurice said. "But it won't change our style that much. We still play pretty much the same way for everybody."
Maurice was asked if the actions of Cooke and Eaton might serve as a rallying point for the Canes.
"I'll let you know," he said wryly.
This much is certain: If Cole and/or Ruutu can not lace up the blades in Game 2, it is clear the Hurricanes lost much more than just the series opener. They have lost the war of attrition as well.
At least to this point.