PITTSBURGH - With three key pieces missing from their playoff roster a year ago, what chance did the Pittsburgh Penguins really have?
The Sidney Crosby watch was a daily piece of business with speculation the Kid would be back from a concussion when the Stanley Cup chase got serious. Bowing out in the first round swiftly ended that talk.
Think the Penguins missed Evgeni Malkin much last spring? All the 25-year-old Russian did on his return this season was win the NHL scoring title.
The benefits are obvious of having Crosby and Malkin in the lineup -- a year ago the Penguins couldn't muster enough offence without them to defeat the Tampa Bay Lightning, of all teams.
But what about the third guy?
How about a reformed Matt Cooke being a key piece in Pittsburgh's playoff hopes, especially in a curtain-raising series against state-rival Philadelphia and the feistiness that awaits?
Cooke was suspended for the first round of the 2011 playoffs after smashing New York Rangers defenceman Ryan McDonagh with an elbow late in the season, just the latest sentence for a serial offender. Cooke has changed his ways dramatically to the point where he is the Penguins nominee for the Masterton Trophy.
"In the playoffs, the role players end up being the difference-makers a lot of times, and Matt's right up there," Crosby said following practice Tuesday at the Consol Energy where the Penguins will open the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinal Wednesday night.
"He has been a difference-maker for us all year. I don't think he has to change anything."
Missing the playoffs last year stung Cooke to his core. He prides himself on being a good teammate, even if it is often through third-line duty. It was killing him not to play against the Lightning, which upset the Pens in seven games.
"We play 82 games every year to be in the playoffs," Cooke told QMI Agency Tuesday. "Sid and Geno (Malkin), they didn't have a choice. They were injured. It's not like they could go out. I was healthy and able to help my teammates and I take responsibility for that."
Cooke had to rein in his attitude, a process coach Dan Bylsma said was a long and thorough work in process. But just because he doesn't try to run guys out of the rink anymore doesn't mean his role isn't important this time of year.
"I went through a period in the middle of the season that I didn't even feel like I was playing hockey, really," Cooke said. "But the last 20-25 games it became more instinct. I trust and believe in the way that I play now. There is a line where you can still be physical but also knowing when to ease off a guy."
Against the Flyers, Cooke could play a big role, especially if he is able to continue with his reformed ways and not retaliate. As much as emotions boiled over in a brawl-filled game between the rivals 10 days ago, the Flyers can't afford to fill the penalty box. It was certainly no coincidence, we're thinking, that the Penguins spent a good deal of practice working on the power play.
Malkin and Crosby were front and centre in those drills, including working the point at times. Can you really mention Cooke, who was on the penalty-killing side of some of those drills, in the same breath?
He may be sixth in goals on the Penguins, but a career-high 19 is not insignificant, especially when you consider a pair of them came Feb. 18 against the Flyers. A couple of well-timed contributions over the coming weeks could go a long way in the quest for the 16 wins it would take to earn the Penguins a second Cup in the Crosby-Malkin era.
"Throughout my career, I've always felt that in the playoffs is when I can be most effective," Cooke said. "There's such a heightened focus on certain things.
"Quite often the superstars, they get their points, but every team that has won the Cup has had guys on the third line (who have) had great playoffs and chipped in."