ST. PAUL, Minn. — Matt Cooke returned to practice for the Minnesota Wild on Thursday, but the gritty forward won’t be returning to the lineup any time soon after being suspended seven games by the NHL.
Cooke was back in Minnesota on Thursday morning after having an in-person hearing with the league in New York on Wednesday. Cooke was suspended seven games for his knee-on-knee hit on Colorado Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie in Game 3 of the team’s first-round playoff series.
Following practice, Cooke offered a statement about the incident to the media.
"First and foremost, I want to say that I’m disappointed and sorry that Tyson Barrie can’t play for the Colorado Avalanche tonight," Cooke said. "I wish that he could. Unfortunately, it was not my intent to collide with him knee on knee. I think it was my intent to finish my check.
"Playoffs are a hard, physical time, and it’s my job to be physical. I led my team in hits all three games, and it’s an intense time. I’ve led my team this year in hits and in this series. Since March 20, 2011, I’ve been a changed player. I’ve approached the game differently. I think differently about the game. The stats that I’ve collected over those three seasons prove that I’m a changed player, and the plays that I make and the plays that I don’t make prove that point as well. At the end of the day, this situation was not my intent."
Barrie suffered an injury to the medial collateral ligament in his left knee and is expected to be out four to six weeks. Cooke will miss the rest of the series against Colorado, which continues with Game 4 in Minnesota on Thursday night. He would miss games into the next round should the Wild, down 2-1 to the Avalanche, advance. If he doesn’t fulfill the seven games in the playoffs, the suspension would continue at the start of next season.
Barrie will be replaced in Colorado’s lineup by defenseman Ryan Wilson, who played 28 games during the regular season. Barrie was second among Avalanche defensemen with 38 points during the regular season.
Cooke will be replaced in the lineup by Kyle Brodziak, who was a healthy scratch in Minnesota’s Game 3 win. Nino Niederreiter will take Cooke’s spot on the Wild’s third line, which will again be tasked with trying to slow Colorado’s high-scoring line of Gabriel Landeskog, Paul Stastny and Nathan MacKinnon.
Niederreiter, 21, joins rookies Erik Haula and Justin Fontaine on the third line.
"We got young kids, but these are all guys that have all played very important roles and very defined roles for us this year too, which I think is important," Minnesota head coach Mike Yeo said. "Knowing those guys, if anybody does, it’s not a group that lacks confidence. That’s what I like in how they played the game and how they were going out on the ice against them last game. They didn’t defend with fear. They defended in an aggressive manner, pressuring and being aggressive in how they executed to get to the offensive zone. There’s no question that you have to play smart, but the difference between smart and safe can be a very big one and I thought that they did a very good job balancing that."
Cooke didn’t take questions from the media Thursday and didn’t say if he would appeal the suspension. Cooke has 48 hours to appeal, which can be elevated to a neutral arbitrator depending on NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s ruling. Cooke would be ineligible to play while the appeal is being heard.
Yeo wouldn’t say if Cooke will appeal the suspension and said he’s concentrating on the players available for Thursday night’s game.
"We always definitely respect and accept what the decision is from the league," Yeo said. "With that, it’s just real important we all put it behind us and for me, I’m just very much focused on tonight."
Hurry up and wait: The Wild finally get the chance to even the series after a dominating, but dramatic 1-0 overtime win against Colorado on Monday night.
With two days in between games, the waiting was tough for the Wild. Minnesota’s players had Tuesday off and practiced on Wednesday.
"It’s amazing, isn’t it? Just one extra day in between games in the playoffs and it feels like a week," Yeo said. "Good day off, good practice yesterday and now I can’t wait to hurry up and wait until 8:30 tonight."