ST. PAUL, Minn. — Matt Cooke was all alone on the Xcel Energy Center ice Wednesday morning, running through conditioning drills prompted by the whistle of strength and conditioning coach Kirk Olson.
Cooke won’t be alone anymore.
The gritty, checking forward is eligible to return for the Wild in Game 4 on Friday night in Minnesota after having served his seven-game suspension.
"The last couple of weeks, I think I earned myself an ulcer watching games," Cooke said Wednesday. "Obviously the team’s played great, but it’s tough to sit and watch. I pride myself on being a guy that performs and has a game built for the playoffs, and it’s not fun to sit and watch. I’m proud of the guys. They’ve played hard, they battled hard, and I’m excited to be able to get out with them and support them and support our team in winning hockey games in the future. I’ve skated almost every day, again today I put myself on the ice, just to make sure I’m ready."
The Wild have given Cooke a chance to return through their play without him. Cooke was suspended by the NHL for a knee-on-knee hit on Colorado defenseman Tyson Barrie in the first-round series. Cooke played in the first three games of the series when Minnesota went down 2-1 and missed the final four games against the Avalanche and first three games in the second round against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Cooke returns to a team facing another 2-1 series deficit heading into Friday’s game against Chicago.
"It’s the perfect scenario," Cooke said. "Having to be up at this podium a week ago and not getting a chance to play again in the playoffs would have been a really hard thing for me. I’m thankful for the success of my teammates without me. Like I said, I await the opportunity to be back out there with them."
Wild head coach Mike Yeo isn’t sure how he will arrange his lines for Friday’s Game 4, but Cooke, the most playoff-experienced player on Minnesota’s roster, will be back in the lineup.
"We haven’t made any decisions yet but obviously what he brings is a specific role to our group," Yeo said. "There’s no question that we want him to create offense and that he has that ability. But there’s a certain way that he’s going to do it and there’s certain things that he has to bring to our lineup and adds to our group, and in a lot of ways, things that we’re missing right now. He’s a guy that’s difficult to play against, not just because of his physicality. He’s a strong checking forward and gets to the offensive zone, goes to the net and is an important part of our penalty kill, too."
Before being suspended, Cooke was a major part of trying to shut down Colorado’s talented top line. His return will aid the Wild’s defense against the Blackhawks’ top six forwards which include Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Brandon Saad.
Minnesota’s defense has held Chicago to 22 shots or fewer each of the three games against Chicago this postseason.
Cooke served his first suspension since March 2011. He worked to reform his play after a checkered past nearly cut short his NHL career.
Cooke knew he had to change if he wanted to stay in the NHL and went to video review to alter his style of play. The changes he made have shown, and he played in all 82 games this season without a major penalty.
He said he has to return and play a physical game and trust in the changes he’s made.
"I’ve got to go back to the work I put in to this point, video-wise, game-wise, mentally-wise, to put myself in a position for success," Cooke said. "Although this one situation happened, I still believe and know that I’m in a good spot as far as the way I approach the game to go out and play a physical style without being riskful. Obviously there’s the one situation that’s going to be in my head that it happened, but I’m a firm believer in the work that I’ve put in to change the style, to change my approach to the game, to allow me to go out and have success."
Cooke said he’s reached out to Barrie, who suffered a knee injury and missed the rest of the playoffs for Colorado.
He said he’s heard the reaction of his hit against Barrie, which included several people speaking out against it. He said he knows he can’t change the perception some people have.
"I do know, and people are entitled to their opinions and everyone’s going to have them," Cooke said. "It’s not my job to go out and change peoples’ opinions. It’s my job to go out and play the way that I can to be successful and help my teammates win. That’s my job."
Yeo said Cooke can’t be shy about playing a physical game and being the type of player who was so valuable to Minnesota during the season.
"This is a guy that has been through this before and he was very hard on himself when it happened," Yeo said. "Nobody was happy. We don’t want to lose a player. We don’t want anyone to get hurt. He doesn’t want to hurt anybody and he doesn’t want to hurt the team. That is going to be the focus for the most part. Like I said, the last several years, he’s been able to play the physical type of game, but play it honest and hard without going over the line and that is what we are going to need from him again."