Matt Cooke made his long-anticipated return to the Wild’s lineup Friday night after serving his seven-game suspension for kneeing Colorado Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie in Game 3 of the first round.
“I’ve been ready to go since I haven’t been able to play, so the time is finally here and I just want to go out and battle with my teammates,” Cooke said before Game 4’s 4-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks. “I’ve got a lot of praise for the guys in this room.
“They’ve done a great job, battling with adversity, up in games, down in games, tough travel. They’ve done a great job, and I’m just thankful that I get a chance to go out and play with them again.”
Cooke slid into his old third-line left wing spot next to rookies Erik Haula and Justin Fontaine, and set up Fontaine for the game’s first goal.
“Two kids that can skate really fast and really well,” Cooke said. “Erik’s done a great job. He’s been put in the situation to play against top lines and part of that’s his speed, competitive level and the part that probably goes unnoticed, his skill.”
Cooke, who has a history of suspensions buts was serving his first in three years, was asked if he was going to be looking for his first big hit since April 21 or if he would be tentative.
“Obviously, I don’t want to see anyone get hurt and neither does anyone else, but you also don’t want this to be a figure-skating contest out there,” he said. “It’s something I’ve tried to pride myself on, especially here over the last three years, that you can play physical without being at risk.
“I can go out there and continue to play the way I did the last three years, and if I do that, then I’m going to bring energy for our team.”
Mover and shaker
He has played left wing and right wing, on the first line all the way down to the fourth line. Yet no matter his role or position this season, Nino Niederreiter hasn’t griped.
Niederreiter actually began a second consecutive game on the same line — “a big man’s line,” as he called it — with Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle. Niederreiter scored the go-ahead goal in the second period Friday.
“At the end of the day, I make sure I can find chemistry as quick as I can on any line,” Niederreiter said. “We all play structured and all play the same system, so it helps when you switch lines as many times as I have this year.”
Niederreiter began raising his level in Game 6 of the first round and scored two goals in Game 7 of the first round.
“I feel like it’s always been my strength, in big games coming up big,” Niederreiter said. “At the end of the day, each one of our players wants to be a difference maker. If everybody goes in with that mentality, somebody’s going to be that player.
“Big games are the most fun games to play. You know there is something on the line and you have to look in the mirror at the end of the night, and if you can say you gave everything you did that game, then good things will happen.”
Coach Mike Yeo said he has spent the season talking to Niederreiter every time he has changed his role or position.
“You don’t just let him go into whatever situation you’re asking him to play blindly,” Yeo said. “We’ve tried to work with him, whether it’s a fourth-line role, whether it’s a third-line role, left wing, right wing, first line, there’s been games he’s played on the power play, there’s been games that he hasn’t, but we try to make sure he goes into the game with a good understanding of what we’re expecting of him.”
Aches and pains
Goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body) didn’t take the ice Friday, but Yeo didn’t know if there had been a setback. In addition, Niklas Backstrom (abdominal surgery) was seen at the arena for the first time in a while, climbing stairs as part of his rehab. Josh Harding (multiple sclerosis) continues to skate with the big club.
Defensemen Nate Prosser and Jon Blum and forwards Stephane Veilleux and Mike Rupp were scratched. Winger Matt Moulson (lower body injury) also sat out.
Defenseman Keith Ballard, who has had his season destroyed by injury after injury, left Friday’s game in the second period dazed when boarded by Chicago’s Brandon Bollig. Ballard, who has had a concussion and broken ribs this season, was playing only his second game since returning from a groin injury.