TAMPA, FLA. – Last month, Matt Cooke’s agent, Pat Morris, joked that his client has had so few penalty minutes the past few years, he probably deserved to win the Lady Byng Trophy, awarded for gentlemanly play and sportsmanship.
Cooke, a longtime NHL agitator, entered this season with 80 penalty minutes over 130 games the past two seasons. Through seven games with the Wild this season, Cooke hadn’t had a penalty entering Thursday’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“That’s an interesting stat, isn’t it?” coach Mike Yeo said earlier this week.
Well, that jinxed it. Cooke was dinged with a high-sticking double minor in the third period Thursday night — his first four minutes of the season.
Before the game, Cooke said: “I want to be the guy that’s killing the penalty, not the guy that’s in the box, so it’s about being responsible on the ice. With the system we play and knowing that we always have a layer behind, it helps the way I want to play.”
If the Wild’s playing well, players are constantly pressuring the puck.
“But we want to be aggressive in that structure, and sometimes you’re going to get beat,” Yeo said. “And if you get beat and there’s another layer, you don’t have to hook and hold.”
One area Cooke is trying to help clean up is the Wild’s penalty kill. The Wild entered Thursday’s game having killed just 17 of 25 opposing power plays. That’s a 68 percent clip, which ranked 29th. The Wild killed six of seven power plays Thursday.
“The confidence of the penalty kill is not any different than the confidence of the power play,” Yeo said. “If you’re going there with the right mind-set, then it’s going to help you a lot. That’s something we have to build.”
Little mistakes seem to constantly end up in the back of the net.
“We’ve had a lot of bad bounces, but we need to find a way to get the kill,” Cooke said. “We’ve been able to come up with the big kill at timely times, but we need to put that same focus and emphasis every time we go out to kill a penalty. We have more than capable guys, so I think it’ll be fine.”
Defenseman Keith Ballard missed his second game in a row after taking a puck to the face Monday in Buffalo. Yeo said Ballard wasn’t “feeling well” Thursday, but the decision to sit him was more “preventative,” a decision made easier with two extra defensemen on the roster. Rookie Matt Dumba, scratched Tuesday in Toronto, returned to the lineup, while Nate Prosser was scratched for the seventh time in eight games.
Goalie Niklas Backstrom (knee) dressed for the first time in five games in a backup role to Josh Harding. Darcy Kuemper is expected to be reassigned to Iowa on Friday.
• Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper was very complimentary of the Wild on Thursday morning.
“I looked at the score — the 4-1 loss to Toronto — and I’m sitting there thinking in my head, ‘Toronto’s rolling and Minnesota must have ran into a buzz saw.’
‘‘And then I watched the game and I can’t believe the score wasn’t reversed at worst,” Cooper said.
“They’re extremely structured, they battle hard all through their lines, and I think they have some guy on defense there that plays 75 minutes in a 60-minute game [Ryan Suter]. He’s just a horse back there.”
• Wild assistant Darryl Sydor, who won a Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay in 2004, coached his first game at the Ice Palace and couldn’t get over the improvement, particularly the giant HD scoreboard.
“I’m not sure if I’m going to watch the screen tonight or the ice,” Sydor joked Thursday morning.