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Updated: May 10th, 2014 1:00am
Zulgad: Matt Cooke provides Wild with spark in return from suspension

Zulgad: Matt Cooke provides Wild with spark in return from suspension

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

ST. PAUL -- Matt Cooke made the decision the moment he saw Nino Niederreiter score in overtime of Game 7 in the Wild's first-round playoff victory over Colorado.

Cooke, who had been suspended by the NHL for seven games after a knee-on-knee hit against Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie in Game 3, knew his season wouldn't end at that point and that he would be in a position to play at least one game in the second round against Chicago.

"It was a push from that point on to make sure that when I got the opportunity to go out and play again that I didn't just want to be a guy on the perimeter that wasn't able to go out and help my team," Cooke said.

Cooke certainly didn't spend any time on the perimeter Friday night at the Xcel Energy Center.

The left winger brought tremendous energy to the third line and set up Justin Fontaine's first-period goal in the Wild's 4-2 win over the Blackhawks before an electric crowd of 19,405 that provided the home team with a spark and serenaded Chicago goalie Corey Crawford with chants of "Crawford, Crawford," throughout the third period.

Cooke, who replaced the injured and struggling Matt Moulson on a line with Erik Haula and Fontaine, led both teams with five hits and three blocked shots. The Wild tied the series 2-2 and will face the Blackhawks on Sunday night in Chicago.

"He likes to bang the bodies and he's a great veteran guy to have in the room," Wild coach Mike Yeo said of Cooke. "He's won a Stanley Cup, and to listen to the things he has to say before a game, to see the way he plays in the playoffs, that's a great boost for our team. He makes a lot of little plays that go unnoticed."

Cooke has a long history of suspensions and came under fire for what happened with Barrie. It was a setback for a guy who spent plenty of time talking about how he had cleaned up his act upon joining the Wild last summer.

Yeo had no reservations about putting Cooke back on the ice as soon as his suspension ended and, no matter how you feel about Cooke's style of play, it would have been very difficult for the coach to keep the veteran in the press box.

Not only did Cooke provide a burst of energy in his return Friday, but he also brings playoff experience (35 points in 101 career postseason games) and keeps opponents looking over their shoulder. That's not a bad thing this time of year.

"He's definitely an energy player," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "He brings a physical presence. You never know what he's going to do so you've got to be aware of him out there."

Cooke wasn't the only member of the Wild who provided Chicago with issues on Friday. Just as they had done against Colorado, the Wild returned home facing a 2-0 deficit and serious questions about how long they can remain in the series.

And just as they did in the first round, the Wild responded with back-to-back victories to even things. Against Colorado, the Wild simply overwhelmed the Avs.

That wasn't the case against Chicago, which is the defending Stanley Cup champions and eliminated the Wild in five games in the first round of the playoffs last season.

In Game 3 on Tuesday, the Blackhawks attempted to use a rope-a-dope strategy to lull the Wild to sleep. It appeared to be working through two periods, as the game remained scoreless, but the Wild found their offense in the third period and cruised to a 4-0 victory.

The Blackhawks changed their strategy on Friday night and attempted to use their speed and skill to jump on the Wild early. However, the Wild's youngsters, a group that includes Haula, Fontaine, Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter, remained unfazed and simply beat the Blackhawks at their own game.

How resilient is this Wild team? Chicago winger Patrick Sharp answered Fontaine's goal at 19 minutes, 21 seconds of the first period to tie the score 1-1. It was a weak goal against Minnesota's Ilya Bryzgalov and could have given Chicago big-time momentum entering the second.

That didn't happen.

Jason Pominville scored only his second goal of the playoffs at 3:51 of the second, and after Michal Handzus tied the score less than three minutes later, Niederreiter blasted a shot past Crawford at 7:12 to the put the Wild up for good.

Cooke finished with the lone assist but his teammates credited him with giving them a game-long boost.

"Everyone's excited he's back, and (he was) obviously probably a little nervous but a little excited at the same time," Coyle said. "We love the way he plays here. He gives us a boatload of energy out there, and he gets the guys going no matter what he does. He's always hitting, playing physical, and that's what we need from him. He knows how to play to his strengths, and it feeds into us as well, for sure."

Cooke, in turn, gave his teammates plenty of credit.

"They helped me a lot and I wanted to go out and return the favor," he said. "Part of that was me staying ready. So I think that going out and having the energy that I had, and being ready, I felt that right off the get go that I was in game shape. That benefited me a lot."

Playing in the game, might have been the easiest part for Cooke. After sitting out seven games, he had to wait until after 8:30 p.m. for the game to start.

"Usually we're playing 7 o'clock, so to wait an extra hour-and-a-half was tough," he said. "I felt like there was a lot of time in between and then, on top of that, when we came back after warm-ups, usually it's 14 or 15 minutes and I think it was 24 minutes. I was ready when it was time for puck drop." 

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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