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Pens' Cooke banned through 1st round of playoffs

The Associated Press
Monday, March 21, 2011; 11:39 PM

DETROIT -- Matt Cooke got exactly the kind of harsh punishment Mario Lemieux challenged the NHL to hand out.

The only problem is Cooke plays for the Pittsburgh Penguins, the team owned by the Hockey Hall of Famer.

The oft-penalized Cooke received the stiffest sentence yet in his 12-season NHL career when he was suspended Monday by the league for the remainder of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs for elbowing defenseman Ryan McDonagh of the New York Rangers in the head one day earlier.

Pittsburgh has nine games to play, following Monday night's 5-4 road shootout victory against the Detroit Red Wings. Adding in at least four postseason games, the left wing will be forced to sit out a minimum of 14 games. He will also lose $219,512.20 in salary.

Last month, Lemieux lashed out at the NHL for what he perceived to be insufficient discipline following a brawl-filled game between the Islanders and his Penguins.

Penguins general manager Ray Shero supported the penalty the NHL gave Cooke, saying in a statement that the suspension was "warranted because that's exactly the kind of hit we're trying to get out of the game.

"Head shots have no place in hockey. We've told Matt in no uncertain terms that this kind of action on the ice is unacceptable and cannot happen. Head shots must be dealt with severely, and the Pittsburgh Penguins support the NHL in sending this very strong message."

The ruling followed a meeting between Cooke and NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell at the league office in Toronto on Monday.

"Mr. Cooke, a repeat offender, directly and unnecessarily targeted the head of an opponent who was in an unsuspecting and vulnerable position," Campbell said in a statement. "This isn't the first time this season that we have had to address dangerous behavior on the ice by Mr. Cooke, and his conduct requires an appropriately harsh response."

It is Cooke's fifth suspension and the fourth since he signed with the Penguins in 2008. He was banned four games last month for hitting Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Fedor Tyutin from behind.

Cooke's unpenalized hit last season on Boston's Marc Savard started an uproar that led to the creation of a rule that bans blindside hits to the head. The rising rate of concussions in the NHL has the league on high alert and was the biggest topic of conversation at last week's general managers meetings.

Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby hasn't played since Jan. 5 because of a lingering concussion caused by hits to the head in successive games from Washington's David Steckel on Jan. 1 in the Winter Classic and Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman four days later.

Lemieux's complaints came after the Penguins and Islanders combined for 346 penalty minutes, 10 ejections, 15 fighting majors and 20 misconducts.

The Islanders had two players suspended for their actions, and the team was fined $100,000 for failing to maintain control. Pittsburgh avoided a fine by the NHL, and only Eric Godard on the Penguins' side was suspended - receiving an automatic 10-game ban for leaving the bench to join a fight.

"The NHL had a chance to send a clear and strong message that those kinds of actions are unacceptable and embarrassing to the sport. It failed," Lemieux said then. "We, as a league, must do a better job of protecting the integrity of the game and the safety of our players. We must make it clear that those kinds of actions will not be tolerated and will be met with meaningful disciplinary action."

Cooke didn't play in that Feb. 11 game against the Islanders because he was serving his other suspension, and he won't be on the ice for the anticipated rematch with New York on April 8.

In 67 games this season, Cooke has 30 points - including 12 goals - and 129 penalty minutes.

The suspension is another setback for a team that has been without Crosby for two months and has lost Evgeni Malkin (knee) for the rest of the season. Crosby is skating, but there isn't a timetable for his return to the lineup.

© 2011 The Associated Press