Stewart’s enthusiasm, physicality key as Wild begin playoffs

The 6-foot-2, 231-pound Chris Stewart has added a physical approach to the Wild. Set to face his former team in the playoffs, that will be important for Stewart and Minnesota as they brace to take on St. Louis.

Brace Hemmelgarn/Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Anticipation builds as the Minnesota Wild wait for Game 1 of the playoffs on Thursday at St. Louis.

Five days from the end of the season to the first game makes the waiting the hardest part. Minnesota forward Chris Stewart can hardly contain himself waiting for his fourth appearance in the playoffs.

"Like a kid on Christmas, two more sleeps," Stewart explained Tuesday.

The youthful enthusiasm has been a Stewart staple since he arrived in a trade-deadline move. Going from the worst team in the league in Buffalo to the streaking Wild can have an effect on even the most dour of souls. Stewart owns an excitable personality, though.

From his pregame chugging of Red Bull to the "Stewie Sprint," Stewart brought a light-hearted character to Minnesota. The 6-foot-2, 231-pound Stewart also added a physical approach to the Wild. Set to face his former team in the playoffs, both aspects will be important for Stewart and Minnesota.

"He’s the type of guy that certainly has a chance to be an ‘X’ factor if you want to call him that," Wild head coach Mike Yeo said. "He’s a guy that has a physical edge. He’s a big body. He’s going to play the game hard. I’ve been happy with how he’s played the game systematically.

"I wouldn’t be surprised if they go at him a little bit, but I think he’s ready for that and understands that. He’s a veteran guy who has been around. To have a guy with size and the courage that he has, but also the skill, is definitely an asset."

The trade for goaltender Devan Dubnyk turned Minnesota’s season around in January. Less heralded, but still important, was acquiring Stewart from Buffalo on March 2 for a 2017 second-round draft pick. Stewart had three goals and eight assists in 20 regular-season games with the Wild. He’s dropped the gloves to protect teammates with three fights in his time with Minnesota.

Stewart also fit in seamlessly as his new team made its second-half push. A year in Buffalo had led Stewart back to a playoff race.

"I think you could see he was hungry when he got in," Wild center Mikko Koivu said. "He was very motivated to get into our team. I think his personality, it fits well. He’s an outgoing guy. I think that always helps to get comfortable as soon as you can to the team, which is not always an easy thing to do. . . . At the end it’s about the work ethic and what you’re willing to do. Playing on the same line you can see that each and every night, and as a teammate you appreciate that."

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Koivu and Stewart developed chemistry playing together. But they had to get used to each other first, especially when it comes to the "Stewie Sprint." After pregame warmups, Stewart dashes off the ice with a quick warning of "coming in hot" as he runs into the Wild dressing room. He said he’s done the sprint for the past few years.

One time he nearly ran into Koivu. Stewart joked Koivu wasn’t too happy, so now he let’s the Wild captain get into the room first.

"That’s just my personality," Stewart said. "That’s the kind of guy I am, keep things light around the room. There’s so much focus and anticipation before the game, so I just let the guard down for a minute and then refocus."

Keeping the atmosphere light during the heat of the playoffs could come in handy.

As a member of the Blues, Stewart played in the postseason in 2012 and 2013 and had two goals and an assist in 13 playoff games. He had three goals in six playoff games with Colorado in 2010. But feeling goaltender Ryan Miller was the missing piece for its own playoff success, St. Louis shipped Stewart to Buffalo.

Stewart says there is no extra motivation in facing the Blues. But now he’s a central figure against his former team, in what will likely be a physical matchup. Stewart said he’s built for the playoffs.

"Yeah, I just think in playoffs it gets dialed up to another level," Stewart said. "The physicality gets dialed up too . . . the more physical game it is, I think the better I become."

And more eager, too.

Cooke sits out practice: Minnesota forward Matt Cooke, who was likely slated to play in Game 1, sat out Tuesday’s practice at the Xcel Energy Center and was replaced on the fourth line by Ryan Carter.

Yeo said Cooke was having discomfort, but it was not related to the sports hernia surgery which sidelined him earlier this season.

Yeo hasn’t confirmed his lineup for Game 1, but said Cooke could still be in the lineup.

"I’d say he’s definitely a possibility," Yeo said. "It’ll just be a matter of us deciding if he’s not a hundred percent, then we wouldn’t put him in. We’ve got healthy guys but I don’t think this is something that’s going to linger."

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