ST. PAUL, MINN. - Matt Cooke is well aware that the negative perception of him being a menace in the NHL has returned.
The moment the Minnesota Wild forward injured Tyson Barrie of the Colorado Avalanche with a knee-on-knee hit in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the hockey world immediately said, “Same old Matt Cooke” of the man who has now completed his sixth NHL suspension, a seven-game banishment.
“People are entitled to their opinions and everyone’s going to have them,” Cooke said defiantly on Wednesday as he prepared to return to action. “It’s not my job to go out and change peoples’ opinions. It’s my job to go out and play the way that I can to be successful and helping my teammates win.”
It’s true Cooke’s job is solely to win games, which he’ll try to do Friday when the Wild look to even their series with Chicago. The Blackhawks lead 2-1.
However, the number of times that he’s crossed the line makes it a question whether he should be allowed that privilege in the NHL.
With his checkered history — it doesn’t take long to find on YouTube all kinds of dubious hits, including a couple within the past year — it didn’t matter Cooke had gone three years between banishments.
To detractors, his hit on Barrie, which resulted in a season-ending knee injury and hindered Colorado against the Wild, became proof that a leopard can’t change his spots.
“I can’t change it,” Cooke said of the way he’s viewed. “All I can do is go out and play the way that I play, build the stats that I built over the last three years within my game and the rest will take care of itself.”
When asked whether he made contact with Barrie, Cooke only replied: “I reached out to him.”
What remains to be seen is how Cooke performs. When at his best, he’s an assertive forechecker, good penalty killer and can chip in with offence.
When at his worse, he’s Public Enemy No. 1.
“I’ve got to go back to the work I put in to this point, video-wise, game-wise, mentally-wise, to put myself in a position for success,” Cooke said. “Although this one situation happened, I still believe and know that I’m in a good spot as far as the way I approach the game to go out and play a physical style without being riskful.
“Obviously, there’s the one situation that’s going to be in my head that it happened, but I’m a firm believer in the work that I’ve put in to change the style, to change my approach to the game, to allow me to go out and have success.”
Wild coach Mike Yeo, who confirmed Cooke will be in the lineup on Friday, believes the winger won’t have an issue playing his game.
“This is a guy that has been through this before and he was very hard on himself when it happened,” Yeo said. “Nobody was happy. We don’t want to lose a player, we don’t want anyone to get hurt, he doesn’t want to hurt anybody and he doesn’t want to hurt the team. That is going to be the focus for the most part. Like I said, the last several years, he’s been able to play the physical type of game, but play it honest and hard without going over the line and that is what we are going to need from him again.”
Frankly, Cooke is lucky.
He received just a seven-game suspension — which allowed for the possibility of a return in this year’s playoffs.
“It’s the perfect scenario,” said Cooke, who has two more years on his contract with the Wild. “Having to be up at this podium a week ago and not getting a chance to play again in the playoffs would have been a really hard thing for me. I’m thankful for the success of my teammates without me.
“The last couple of weeks, I think I earned myself an ulcer watching games. Obviously, the team’s played great, but it’s tough to sit and watch. I pride myself on being a guy that performs and has a game built for the playoffs, and it’s not fun to sit and watch. I’m proud of the guys. They’ve played hard, they battled hard, and I’m excited to be able to get out with them and support them and support our team in winning hockey games in the future. I’ve skated almost every day, again today I put myself on the ice, just to make sure I’m ready.”
WAKE-UP CALL FOR HAWKS
The words “wakey, wakey” became a sticky situation when Chicago Blackhawks defenceman Duncan Keith said them to an obviously injured David Backes in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The way Hawks forward Patrick Kane sees it, they’re worth saying to each other after their last outing.
The Blackhawks still hold a 2-1 lead in their second-round Stanley Cup playoff series with the Minnesota Wild, but didn’t look like the defending champs in Tuesday’s 4-0 loss.
“It’s a wake-up call for us. Winning six games in a row, maybe we were a little overconfident in ourselves and Minnesota did a good job of making it a series,” Kane told reporters Wednesday in Chicago. “We still feel that we haven’t played our best game in the series and hopefully it’ll come next game.
“I think we’re happy with where we’re at. Obviously, it’s never fun losing a game, but it’s going to happen, especially in the payoffs.”
Starting with 2010’s Stanley Cup final, the Blackhawks have lost their first road game in nine straight series. However, they’ve lost only two of those series.
“It’s one game and we know the next one is going to be just as tough. We know we can play a lot better,” defenceman Johnny Oduya said. “The urgency is there now. We’ve seen how they can play and how far they battled for winning games. That’s something that we have to have, too, and it was a little bit of a wake-up call.
“We have to play better, that’s just the bottom line.”