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Boston Bruins' Shawn Thornton (22) fights with Pittsburgh Penguins' Matt Cooke (24) early in the the first period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, March 18, 2010, in Boston. (Mary Schwalm)
Boston Bruins' Shawn Thornton (22) fights with Pittsburgh Penguins' Matt Cooke (24) early in the the first period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, March 18, 2010, in Boston. (Mary Schwalm)

Roy MacGregor

Bruins strike early to dish it out to Cooke Add to ...

The most telling moment came in the hours before the scheduled Execution of Matt Cooke, or whatever it was this twisted hockey game was going to turn into before it was over.

Shawn Thornton, the one chosen to wield the axe on behalf of bloodthirsty Boston fans, swore hard as the media hordes left his locker, then swore again into his shoulder.

"I can't wait until this [deleted]game's over with."

The script was set, the die cast. Nothing to do but get on with it.

Eleven days earlier, Cooke, of the Pittsburgh Penguins, had almost decapitated - pardon the execution references, but we're into hockey's Dark Ages here - Boston's Marc Savard. Their best playmaker lost for the season with a Grade 2 concussion, the Bruins' season was in doubt. Barely hanging on to the last playoff spot, it seemed to be slipping away.

Blue-collar Boston was in a surly mood.

"Wanted," said the headline over a poster of Cooke on the front page of the Boston Herald, "at least one Bruin willing to teach this bum a lesson."

Thornton didn't need to be told the assignment was his.

"I know my job," he would say later. But he also knew it wasn't quite as simple as that.

"They're going to be disappointed if they don't see blood," he said earlier of the fans who had been calling for revenge all week. "But they're going to be more disappointed if we don't make the playoffs."

The certainty that there would be a revenge factor had brought out a crowd of media and NHL officials usually seen only at the Stanley Cup final. In the midst of its worst public-relations moment since the Todd Bertuzzi attack on Steve Moore six years ago, the NHL was in damage-control mode.

People simply could not comprehend the league taking no action whatsoever against Cooke for sending Savard off the ice on a stretcher, and no matter how hard the league tried to explain - claiming there was no specific rule to deal with such a situation - the worse it seemed to get.

Senior vice-president Colin Campbell was on hand last night, as was head official Terry Gregson. Two senior referees - Bill McCreary and Stephen Walkom - were assigned to the game and Campbell had met beforehand with the coaches and managers of the Bruins and Penguins.

And yet, every one of them, from Thornton to Cooke himself, knew that something had to happen and something would happen. The only question would be: could it be contained? Perhaps there is no actual script, no paper trail, but it is hard to believe that what came to pass was not by mutual agreement.

The sense seemed to be to get it over fast and get on with the game. As a testy Boston coach Claude Julien had said to a media throng that simply would not let up on a game that one publication had even termed "hockey's Armageddon" - "Turn the pages, boys, I've had enough."

Less than two minutes into the match, Thornton was sent out on a shift by Julien - far earlier than would usually be the case. Instantly, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma accommodated the obvious by sending Cooke out to a roar of boos. By 1:58 of the opening period, Thornton was starring in his cameo by flailing away at will on Cooke, who promptly fell to the ice to the cheers of the Roman Coliseum - sorry, TD Garden - crowd.

"He knew what he had to do," Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby said of Cooke, "and he want out there and did it. That is something you have to do. Once that was out of the way, I think he felt he could play."

As far as Thornton was concerned, the issue was settled the moment Cooke dropped his gloves. "His stepping up and doing the right thing put some water on the fire," Thornton said.

"The fight was a fight," said Cooke, who added that he's been unable to get in contact with Savard. "Things happen. I've got nothing else to say."

Both players were sent off with major penalties for fighting, the NHL still convinced that two men who stop a game in mid-flow in order to assault each other have done nothing that would suggest their teams be penalized. Such are the rules of a game that treasures its "code" as if Moses had carried it down on a third tablet.

On Cooke's next shift, he was instantly called for a penalty, much to the delight of the fans, but Boston could not score on the power play - and this, really, is the far more significant tale of this confused match.

The Bruins cannot score and the Penguins, Stanley Cup defending champions, can. They scored in each period, Crosby uncharacteristically quiet while the goal work went to Tyler Kennedy, Alexei Ponikarovsky and Michael Rupp.

It all came to an end with a long chorus of boos, richly deserved.

"I'm not very happy with the way this game went tonight at all," Thornton said.

Who could be? The Bruins had about as many shots (17) as Thornton landed on Cooke.

But still nothing compared to the self-inflicted blows the league has landed this sad past two weeks.

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