As the anticipation for Thursday’s Wild season opener grows, one subplot involves Matt Cooke and the fact that the Wild’s hard-hitting agitator will be facing the Colorado Avalanche for the first time since sidelining Avs defenseman Tyson Barrie in Game 3 of last year’s opening-round series with a knee-on-knee hit.
In fact, the Wild also plays in Denver on Saturday.
Cooke was suspended seven games for spraining Barrie’s knee and would not be playing in these games had the Wild not rallied to eliminate the Avalanche in seven games and advance into the second round.
Cooke, 36, is aware he might have a bull’s-eye on his chest Thursday and Saturday, although Avalanche bruiser Patrick Bordeleau is injured and antagonist Cody McLeod isn’t exactly a heavyweight.
“I’ve been in this situation before. It’s nothing new,” said Cooke, a marked man after previous on-ice discretions. “I’ve got to go out and play hard. That’s what I’ll do. I can’t really predict situations. I choose not to sit here and worry about it either.
“It’s Game 1 and these two points are important, especially the way our division and our conference are lined up.”
Cooke, who has played 1,120 regular-season and playoff games and won a Stanley Cup with Pittsburgh in 2009, has been suspended six times, but last year’s incident was his first since March 20, 2011. Cooke tried to apologize to Barrie afterward.
“It was a pretty emotional time for me, and I just said I didn’t really want to talk to him,” Barrie told the Denver Post on Tuesday. “But now, it’s a new season and I’m fortunate that there are no ill effects on the knee and I’m not a guy to hold grudges.
“The way I’d like to get back at them is to beat them, beat them good, and then come back here and beat them again and kind of set the tone for our year.”
Since the 2011 Ryan McDonagh incident, Cooke displayed many examples of a changed player. All season last year — his first with the Wild, Cooke proceeded on the side of caution, often peeling off checks or riding a player into the boards rather than blowing him up.
He still managed to lead the Wild with 190 hits while accumulating only 54 penalty minutes. In three seasons since the McDonagh elbow, Cooke has combined for 134 penalty minutes — five minutes more than he had in all of 2010-11, the third consecutive year he topped 100 minutes.
But Cooke knows he’s back on the NHL’s repeat-offender list. League headquarters will be watching his every move. He will have to be cautious not to cross the line while trying to maintain the aggression that makes him an effective player.
“I’ve been in this position before,” Cooke said. “Before last playoffs, I was three years without any supplementary discipline at all. I believe I was doing all the right things, and this was an incident that came from a little bit of playoff intensity and a little bit of bad luck. I’ve got to move on from it.
“I believe in the work that I have put in and the work that I continue to put in to ensure myself the ability to go out and play safely.”
Mike Yeo isn’t worried.
“This is a guy who has made a career out of playing a hard game,” the Wild coach said. “We talked a lot about how he has changed his game. He was doing a great job. Obviously what happened last year was unfortunate, but he’s been in this situation before where he was able to come back and play a hard game and a strong game but at the same time, walk the line and make sure not to go over it.”
Yeo so believes in Cooke, the plan is for him to begin the season on a line with goal scorer Thomas Vanek and captain Mikko Koivu. Yeo loves the speed Cooke brings to the line, plus he can go in straight lines, recover pucks and go to the net. Basically, play a simple game and do the dirty work for his skilled linemates.
“It’s fun,” said Cooke, who scored the Wild’s first goal 64 seconds into last season. “They both want to make plays, and I can get in on the forecheck and create some havoc.”
Cooke is excited for this season. He loved witnessing the emergence of youngsters Nino Niederreiter, Erik Haula, Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle in last year’s playoffs, loves being a mentor to them and believes this team can go far.
“I think this organization has made steps and now is a time to take another step up the ladder,” he said. “We’ve added guys. There have been some subtractions, but not one that leave a deep hole. So we have to make sure as a group that we’re ready to go because management has put the pieces in place for this team to succeed.”