Mike Yeo said before Game 3 that his team’s series against the Colorado Avalanche needed some old-fashioned playoff hatred.
Pretty sure that’s not a problem anymore. Matt Cooke took care of that with his left knee.
The general disdain between the Wild and Avs had been percolating long before Cooke planted his knee into Tyson Barrie’s knee, an act that put another suspension on Cooke’s already checkered résumé and left the Avs without a top defenseman for at least a month.
This is where things really become interesting. The Avs are ticked off and would love to pound on their opponent. The Wild likewise would be foaming at the mouth if the roles were reversed. And the referees who will preside over Game 4 haven’t been living in a cave so they’re aware of the mounting tension.
The Wild should invite Michael Buffer to introduce the lineups.
“Everything is earned, and in a seven-game series, it’s kind of who breaks first,” Wild defenseman Clayton Stoner said.
This actually feels like a true playoff series, which wasn’t the case last season when the Chicago Blackhawks matter-of-factly dismissed the Wild in five games. That series offered no real animosity. It felt like five consecutive regular-season games against the same opponent.
This series has been testy from the start, probably because the Wild truly believes it can win and advance. There’s none of that false hope that players peddled last season.
The teams have combined for 10 roughing penalties, two game misconducts and an endless supply of post-whistle scrums. We’ve seen Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson repeatedly punch Zach Parise in the back of the head after he crashed into goalie Semyon Varlamov in Game 2. Even the normally calm Ryan Suter blew his stack late in that second game.
And, of course, Cooke raised the tension to a new level with his knee-to-knee hit on Barrie.
“You have a hatred for the other team,” Wild winger Charlie Coyle said. “It naturally comes out. They give a little push, you give a push back and everything starts. Just playoff hockey. We’re not afraid to shove right back.”
Therein lies an important distinction. Where is that line between being physical and being foolish? Cooke crossed it with his actions.
The Wild’s best hope to win this series is to play a gritty, punishing style that neutralizes Colorado’s speed and skill. Game 3 was a perfect template. But the Wild can’t get swept up in the emotion and become overheated in trying to establish its will.
Yeo felt his team put itself in “vulnerable” positions by crossing that line a few times in Game 3. Cooke’s hit will only draw more scrutiny from the officials.
“We have a lot of respect for most of their guys, almost all of them,” Johnson said. “Both teams are playing hard, but we’re not looking to do anything to the extent [Cooke] did. As far as retribution, no.”
The pressure of playoff hockey sometimes makes guys lose their minds. The first week of this postseason provided a few examples. Chicago coach Joel Quenneville went bonkers protesting a call and grabbed his crotch in the direction of the officials, a move that earned him a $25,000 fine.
We’ve seen two players on separate teams get speared in a place that no man ever wants to be speared. And Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook received a three-game suspension after nearly decapitating St. Louis captain David Backes.
“You’re fighting for a chance at the Cup,” Coyle said. “You put everything you have into it. Sometimes those other emotions come out. But you need to learn to control them.”
Stoner admits the line becomes blurred in the heat of the moment. He enjoys a good scrum as much as anyone.
“I don’t like to see Zach getting punched in front of the net,” he said. “The next shift that I’m out there, I kind of want their forwards to feel the same way.”
Playoff hockey is fascinating in that regard. Stoner has a few friends on the Avs, including Barrie, but he wants to knock the snot out of them, legally of course. But doesn’t hate seem like a strong word to use for an opponent?
“No,” Stoner said. “In the moment, you definitely hate them.”
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org