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Cooke set to return, grateful Wild prolonged season

by Shawn Roarke

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Minnesota Wild forward Matt Cooke is ready to return to hitting and being hit at high speeds and throwing his body in the path of slap shots. He figures those dangerous pursuits are far better for his health than the past two weeks of watching others do that work.

He served the final game of his seven-game suspension during the Wild's 4-0 victory Tuesday against the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 3 of the Western Conference Second Round series. He is eligible to return Friday in Game 4 at Xcel Energy Center (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TSN, RDS). Chicago leads the best-of-7 series 2-1.

Cooke was suspended by the NHL in the first round for a knee-on-knee hit on Colorado Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie. At the time, the Wild were trailing the series 2-0, but came back by winning four of the next five games, including erasing four one-goal deficits in an overtime victory in Game 7 on the road.

According to Wild coach Mike Yeo, Cooke will most likely return to active duty Friday, although he has not decided who the forward will replace in the lineup.

"The last couple of weeks, I think I earned myself an ulcer watching games," Cooke said during a press conference Wednesday morning at Xcel Energy Center. "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."

After the Game 7 victory against Colorado, there is video of Cooke in the hallway leading from the visitors bench to the dressing room at Pepsi Center. In the video, Cooke hugs and congratulates each player and coach as he comes off the ice. Cooke watched the game from the stands and admitted to being conflicted with a variety of emotions throughout the evening.

"Being a part of that is pretty amazing," he said. "You don't get an opportunity to win a series, a playoff series in the NHL, every year. You don't know when your next chance is going to be. I think that our guys embraced that challenge, especially being on the road, loud crowd, great building, tough team to play against. It was important for me to be there for them, for my teammates to know I was hanging on every second of the game waiting to congratulate them when they came in."

Now Cooke gets to rejoin his teammates in game situations. He has been practicing with the Wild during the suspension, but during practice Thursday he will finally be put back into game situations as Yeo tries to figure out how to fit Cooke back into the equation. Most likely, Cooke will be slotted into a shutdown role and see time as a penalty killer.

"We haven't made any decisions yet, but obviously what he brings is a specific role to our group," Yeo said Wednesday. "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, [they are] 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."

Cooke couldn't ask for anything more than an opportunity. Regardless of the role or the minutes he will receive Friday, he is over the moon to be able to contribute to the cause again.

"It's the perfect scenario," he 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."

Cooke said he believes he can contribute despite the cloud of questions hanging over him about his style of play after serving his sixth career suspension for various safety violations. He has missed 34 games for suspensions and has been fined four times for behavior which did not merit a suspension.

Cooke maintained Wednesday he is a changed man. The suspension for the Barrie hit was the first in more than three years for Cooke, who was suspended in 2011 while a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins for delivering an elbow to the head of New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh. Cooke was suspended for the final 10 games of the regular season and the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"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."

In the past three seasons, Cooke has 134 minutes in penalties. The season previous to that three-year run, he had 129 minutes.

Cooke said he knows people don't believe he has changed his ways in the wake of the Barrie hit and suspension. But he said he can't focus on that if he wants to be successful.

"I do know, and people are entitled to their opinions and everyone's going to have them," he 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 helping my teammates win. That's my job."

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