Minnesota Wild forward Matt Cooke returned from his suspension in a big way Friday in Game 4 of the Western Conference Second Round series against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Cooke, who was suspended seven games for his knee-on-knee hit against Colorado Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie in Game 3 of the Western Conference First Round, helped the Wild to a 4-2 win that evened the best-of-7 series 2-2 heading back to Chicago for Game 5 on Sunday (9 p.m. ET; CNBC, TSN, RDS2).
He made his presence felt right away, slamming Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith into the boards with a big hit 20 seconds into his first shift. On his second shift, Cooke hit Chicago defenseman Nick Leddy along the wall, forcing a turnover that led to an odd-man rush.
On his third shift, he was instrumental in getting the Wild on the board, using an aggressive forecheck to create another turnover and leaving the puck on the stick of linemate Justin Fontaine, who rifled a shot past Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford to give Minnesota a 1-0 lead.
“He’s a playoff performer,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said. “He was brought in here to do a lot of things and help you get to the playoffs, but the experience he has, the way that first goal was created, that’s what we’re looking for.”
Cooke didn’t look rusty in his return to the lineup. He played the type of energetic game he’s become known for during his 16 NHL seasons. Cooke led the Wild with five hits, his three blocked shots were also a team-high, he killed penalties and finished plus-1 with an assist.
“I felt like I had a lot of jump,” said Cooke, who signed with the Wild as a free agent last summer. “Just to get in there, get on the forecheck and create some energy, and it turned into a scoring chance. [Fontaine] made a great shot. It’s fun to contribute and fun to chip in. ... It’s just fun to be back out there again.”
Cooke said he knew he needed to bring energy, and he didn’t disappoint.
“I should have fresh legs,” he said. “I gotta go out there and lead the way, and hopefully my energy is contagious.”
Despite being out of the lineup for 18 days, Cooke has been a constant presence in the Wild dressing room. Following each win against Colorado and in Game 3 here against Chicago, Cooke was the first player to greet his teammates in the room.
With 101 games of Stanley Cup Playoff experience, there isn’t much Cooke hasn’t seen, and his teammates know that.
“He’s been there, he knows what it takes to win,” captain Mikko Koivu said. “I think for all of us, to see from the first shift, the way he came out ... it’s not easy to come out after seven games. Great effort by him to go out there and lead by example.”
Cooke’s teammates also know what they will get from him each game, especially now that he’s making up for lost time.
“He makes a lot of little plays that go unnoticed,” defenseman Jared Spurgeon said. “He’s hard on their defensemen, and whether it’s on the PK or in on the forecheck, he’s able to get momentum for our team.”
Cooke said he worked hard during the past three weeks to remain in prime shape; he did extra skating work on the side in order to be ready when the suspension ended.
“After Colorado, I knew I was going to get a chance to play again,” Cooke said. “It was a push from that point on to know that when I went out and played again, I didn’t want to just be a guy on the perimeter that wasn’t able to go out and help my team.
“They helped me a lot. I wanted to go out and return the favor.”
Cooke’s hard work paid off late in Game 4, when he was still skating like it was early in the first period. As Chicago prepared to pull Crawford in favor of an extra attacker with less three minutes to play, it was Cooke's relentless forecheck that forced Blackhawks defensemen to hang on to the puck behind their own net, killing 20 or 30 seconds at a time.
“It’s 30 seconds they have to defend and play in their own end,” Cooke said. “It may not always lead to a goal, but we’re going to get opportunities; we’re going to get 2-on-1s.”
For the second straight series, the Wild has dug out of a 2-0 hole to create a best-of-3. No matter what happens next, the Wild is a better team going forward with Cooke in the mix.
“A great veteran guy to have in the room,” Spurgeon said. “He’s won a Stanley Cup. Just to listen to the things he says before a game, and the way he plays out there in the playoffs, especially the playoffs, it’s a great boost for our team.”