PITTSBURGH – Usually when 20-plus reporters and cameras wrap around a hockey player at CONSOL Energy Center, Sidney Crosby is facing the lenses and microphones.
But Mr. Popular on Thursday morning was Wild winger Matt Cooke, who returned to Pittsburgh to face the Penguins for the first time since signing a three-year contract with Minnesota last summer. Cooke played 352 games over five seasons for the Penguins and won a Stanley Cup in 2009.
His suspension-worthy hits on Marc Savard, Ryan McDonagh and others led to a bad-boy image outside of Pittsburgh, but the Penguins stood by Cooke and he adjusted the way he played. He hasn’t had a major penalty in three seasons, yet leads the Wild with 86 hits and is plus-6.
“I’ll forever be thankful for the support I had here,” said Cooke, who received a video tribute from the Penguins during the first period Thursday night.
Cooke, 35, knew he would see shifts Thursday against his pal Crosby, the NHL’s leading scorer, who was playing the Wild for the first time since 2009-10.
“The guy does things at full speed that I don’t try standing still,” Cooke said.
Thursday was also the first return to Pittsburgh for Wild coach Mike Yeo, a Penguins assistant for four years after six seasons in Wilkes-Barre, the Penguins’ farm team.
Asked how Yeo has changed in the head role, Cooke said: “His interaction with the players has to be different. He has to be the sergeant at times, but that’s probably the biggest change. His demeanor, his energy, his attention to details, all that stuff has stayed the same.”
Josh Harding missed his first game as he makes a “minor adjustment” with his multiple sclerosis treatment protocol. Yeo found out a few days ago, but the team kept it quiet so there would be no distraction heading into Tuesday’s game against Vancouver — a victory with Harding in net.
“He feels great,” Yeo said. “He wants to make sure everybody understands that, that this is just a minor thing and he’ll be ready to rejoin us right after Christmas.”
Champing at the bit
Second-line center Mikael Granlund was disappointed to miss his 11th game because of a concussion.
“He wants to play,” Yeo said.
But since Granlund had only one practice under his belt, Yeo decided it would be smarter to give Granlund two good practices Friday and Saturday before making a decision about a potential return Sunday against the Rangers.
“This is a long season. We’ve got to look at the big picture,” Yeo said.
Yeo expected right wing Jason Pominville to be “geared up” to play the Penguins. The inference was it would be an audition in front of Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, who will coach the United States at February’s Olympics, and Penguins GM Ray Shero, the United States’ associate GM.
The Canadian-born Pominville has dual citizenship. He wasn’t invited to orientation camp in August, but he’s on the U.S. long list, meaning he is drug-tested as part of the anti-doping program that would allow him to participate in the Olympics if chosen.
“I’m just trying to force their hand and do the best I can to improve my chance of being on the team,” said Pominville, who leads the Wild with 16 goals and scored once Thursday. The U.S. team will be announced after the Winter Classic on Jan. 1.
• Defenseman Matt Dumba, the 2012 Wild first-round pick who played 13 games this season, was named an assistant captain on Canada’s national team for the World Junior Championships. The Dec. 26-Jan. 5 tournament is in Malmo, Sweden.
• The NHL’s holiday roster freeze went into effect at midnight and lasts until 12:01 a.m. Dec. 28.