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Does Matt Cooke suspension indicate the NHL is waking up from its fog?

Brooks Laich scores in the first period, Marcus Johansson adds a short-handed goal and Washington beats star-starved Pittsburgh, 3-0, in their Super Bowl Sunday showdown at Verizon Center.

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Thursday, February 10, 2011; 12:17 AM

I would have liked to have seen Sidney Crosby play for the Penguins on Sunday at Verizon Center. Maybe he would have ruined Michal Neuvirth's shutout; maybe not. But he should have been on the ice.

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Many Penguins fans blame the Capitals' David Steckel for Crosby's absence. Steckel ran into Crosby during the Winter Classic on Jan. 1 in Pittsburgh, and the Pens captain was shaken, though he continued to play. After the game, Steckel seemed genuinely bewildered about how the hit even happened and swore it wasn't intentional. Some of the Penguins believed him, citing a hit by Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman four days later as being responsible for Crosby's concussion.

Either way, Crosby has been out since that second hit, missing the All-Star Game as well as Sunday's rematch against the Caps, and although the initial prognosis was that he would miss a week, reports say he might not return until March.

Despite admitting Steckel is not a dirty player, the Penguins decided to take revenge anyway, and Tim Wallace engaged him in fisticuffs. So be it. That's a time-honored hockey tradition, and it's rare anyone gets hurt in these sweater-pulling square-offs. (The recent goalie fight between Brent Johnson and Rick DiPietro is an exception; DiPietro is out four to six weeks after being KO'd by Johnson, who happens to play for the Penguins.)

It is becoming harder and harder, however, to listen to the Penguins' caterwauling over Crosby's absence - again, regrettable - when the dirtiest player in hockey continues to wreak havoc on the league while wearing the black and gold.

Matt Cooke was suspended by the league for four games Wednesday after a hit from behind on Columbus's Fedor Tyutin on Tuesday night. Tyutin's head snapped back, then forward, like a crash test dummy's, but he was amazingly unhurt. It's Cooke's longest suspension, but long overdue.

"The player looks him right in the eye and knows he's coming and makes sure he keeps his numbers turned towards him," Pittsburgh Coach Dan Bylsma said.

So Tyutin asked for it? Good grief.

The suspension will be some measure of satisfaction for Caps fans after Cooke's dirty and deliberate knee-on-knee swipe at Alex Ovechkin late in the third period Sunday at Verizon Center. Afterward, Bylsma said: "I didn't think much contact was made. Maybe their skates get wound up together."

I wonder if Bylsma will ever tire of having to make excuses for Cooke, or Cookie, as the Penguins call him. No, their skates didn't "wind up together." Cooke stuck out a knee deliberately, according to all visual evidence, as well as Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau.

"It was Matt Cooke," he said. "Need we say more? 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 did I do?' He knows damn well what he did. There's no doubt in my mind that he's good at it and he knows how to do it. He knows how to pick this stuff. We as a league, we still buy into this [idea] that, 'Oh it was an accidental thing.' "

Crosby's concussion renewed the debate about the dangers of head injuries in hockey. That's what happens when perhaps the best player in his particular sport is sidelined by one. But it would help Crosby's case if the Penguins weren't seen as taking a "do as I say, not as I do" stance on the issue.

Cooke is no help in this regard. His hit on Marc Savard last March left the Bruins forward with a Grade 2 concussion - but no penalty was called, and no suspension meted out. Savard was just declared out for the rest of this season after suffering his second concussion in less than 12 months.

In the wake of the hit on Savard, hockey last season adopted Rule 48, which was supposed to eliminate blind-side hits and, by extension, concussions. So there is a rule in the books, much like there was a rule in the NFL's book regarding illegal hits. Remember the hue and cry over the league's decision early this past season to begin enforcing it? Oh, the wailing and gnashing of teeth! Tragedian James Harrison even threatened to retire, and he managed to stay away from the sport for an entire day.

The reality is: A few players got fined, no one got suspended, and the game went on. The only change - fewer golf carts on the field, hauling off addled victims. While some NFL fans and players decry the toning down of violence, if you can believe it, most people agree they would rather not see a guy get his neck broken or his spine snapped or his bell rung on national TV.

Which is why the NHL's suspension of Cooke is a start - but nothing more. It's time to toughen the league's rules against blows to the head and deliberate attempts to injure players. Don't eliminate hard play. But the NHL needs to come down with both skates on dirty plays and dirty players, before the league is bereft of all its stars.


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