Time for Plan B: Cooke could play a key role as the Wild look for a way to slow down Colorado’s MacKinnon

By Chad Graff St. Paul Pioneer Press Matt Cooke was on the Wild bench when Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon turned defenseman Jared Spurgeon into a punchline with a highlight-reel goal in the first period of Game 2 Saturday night. Cooke also was on th...

By Chad Graff

St. Paul Pioneer Press


Matt Cooke was on the Wild bench when Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon turned defenseman Jared Spurgeon into a punchline with a highlight-reel goal in the first period of Game 2 Saturday night.

Cooke also was on the bench when MacKinnon set up the Avalanche’s second and third goals in a 4-2 win that put Colorado up 2-0 in their first-round playoff series.


But now the series shifts to St. Paul, meaning Wild coach Mike Yeo will get the last change to match up whoever he wants against the 18-year-old MacKinnon, who has made the Wild look silly through his first two career playoff games.

The game plan for shutting down MacKinnon and linemates Gabriel Landeskog and Paul Stastny likely will include Cooke, one of the few Wild players who’s been on top of his game since the beginning of the series.

That’s what Cooke hopes anyway.

“I’m a third-line player for a reason,” he said. “I feel like that’s the best way I’m able to contribute is when my line is going out against a top line and being equal or a plus, then our team has a great chance of being successful.”

Of all the puzzling and at times maddening aspects of this series from the Wild’s perspective, what might be most perplexing is the way Colorado’s top line has controlled the series.

MacKinnon and Stastny both have seven points in two games. Landeskog has three goals.

Avs coach Patrick Roy, though, has done his best to keep them away from Cooke and the Wild’s defense-oriented third line.

For the first time this series, Roy won’t be able to do that Monday night. The question becomes whether the Wild will be able to use the last change given to the home team to shut down Colorado’s top line.


“We’ve been able to shut down really good players all year long,” Yeo said.

It’s true.

Earlier this month, the Wild used the last change to shut down Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins’ top line.

They’ve done it to some of the best players in the league.

When the Wild were beaten by the Chicago Blackhawks last season, the eventual Stanley Cup champs won because of secondary scoring, not because of an elite top line.

But through two road games this series, the Wild have had little answer for MacKinnon’s line. He has been praised, and with good reason, although Cooke, who has recorded a series-high 12 hits, points out he had some help.

“I think more of that falls on us as opposed to him,” Cooke said.

Yeo has a few options at his disposal as the Wild enter Game 3.


He could use a fast player like Erik Haula to shadow MacKinnon, but the Wild pride themselves on playing a team game. If they go that route, it would signify the current structure isn’t working.

“Hockey’s not a race,” Haula said. “If I were to shadow him or something, that’s not the way we play.”

Yeo didn’t rule out that strategy but said the Wild’s current system is fine. It’s just not being executed well.

“If we were playing our game really well right now and things were still happening, then I’d say that’s a real concern,” Yeo said. “We’re not completely on top of it, that’s for sure.”

The biggest problem in matching up with the Avs’ top line is just skating with it. MacKinnon is the fastest player in the series and his linemates aren’t far behind.

Because of that, the Wild defense has backed off too much in an attempt to not get burned. MacKinnon has used the extra time and space to create scoring chances.

“We’re talking about a guy that’s playing really well right now,” Yeo said. “We’ve played against some other great players this year, too, and we’ve done the job against them. For me, it’s just a matter of re-setting and getting back to our game.”

The Wild would love to play more physically against MacKinnon, but in order to hit him, they must first keep up with him. There are ways of slowing him down, but Cooke said the Wild’s turnovers have given him too much space with which to work.


“If they touch the puck,” Yeo said, “they should know we’re around.”

Monday night’s game is crucial if the Wild hope to have a chance in the series. Only 24 percent of NHL teams trailing 2-0 in best-of-seven playoff series have come back to win.

“They make these series seven games for a reason,” Cooke said. “And Game 3 is the most important game.”

In order to have success, the Wild have to improve on several areas from Game 2. But none is more pressing than the need to contain the speedy and skilled top line led by a young star who has skated circles around the Wild.

Game 3 is their first chance to put Cooke or anyone else they please against them.

“Obviously, I want that matchup for me, for my line, for our team,” Cooke said. “If that’s the way that coach wants to go, I’ll be ready.”

The Pioneer Press is in a media partnership with Forum News Service.

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