During his 7½ weeks out of the Wild's lineup, Matt Cooke missed everything about the day-to-day life of the NHL — even activities that might seem mundane. "It will be nice to enjoy the things you haven't been able to do, like the pregame meal,'' Cooke said. "Those things will be fun.''
Nothing is more fun than playing, of course. Cooke got to do that Saturday for the first time since Oct. 28, returning to the Wild after a 22-game absence while recovering from a hip flexor injury. Ryan Carter, who missed three games because of a shoulder injury, also rejoined the lineup against Nashville, restoring the Wild's forward corps to full strength for the first time in many weeks.
Coach Mike Yeo said the Wild missed Cooke's energy and leadership, particularly over the past month. After reminding his team that there is "a huge difference in its game'' when it is consistently pressuring opponents, he was eager to see how Cooke's influence might lift a team trying to escape a rut of lackluster hockey. Cooke had two goals and four assists in eight games before his injury.
"[Cooke and Carter] bring something different to the table, something I think we've missed a little bit,'' Yeo said. "Just the board work, the presence on the forecheck, the finishing checks and making us a team that's not fun to play against.
"A guy like [Cooke], with the experience he's been through, can help settle things down. He can help get everyone refocused. It's one thing to say something. It's another to go out there the next shift and bring some momentum to the group, and that's the way he plays the game. We're excited to have him back.''
The Wild will practice outdoors Sunday as part of a holiday event at the John Rose Oval in Roseville.
From 9-11 a.m., the Oval will offer free open skating on its speedskating track, with skate rental available for a fee. The event also includes appearances by Santa Claus and Wild mascot Nordy, and fans can take photos with a herd of live reindeer. The Wild's workout begins at 11 a.m.
Several players said they were looking forward to the event, including Carter, a White Bear Lake native. "It should be a lot of fun,'' said Carter, who has skated at the Oval before. "It's something to share with the fans. And the weather always brings something to it, too, when you can see your breath and you've got hats on. It's kind of neat.''
• Center Mikael Granlund became ill before the game and was a late scratch. Winger Justin Fontaine was set to be scratched to make way for Cooke's return, but with Granlund out, Fontaine stayed in the lineup. Charlie Coyle took Granlund's place at center on the Wild's top line with wingers Zach Parise and Thomas Vanek. Defensemen Stu Bickel and Justin Falk also were scratched.
• Predators winger James Neal, who is second on the team in goals (11) and third in points (19), fell ill and did not travel to Minnesota. Coach Peter Laviolette said Neal does not have the mumps and is not expected to be sidelined for long. Craig Smith replaced Neal on Nashville's top line with Filip Forsberg and Mike Ribeiro.
• Former Wild center Matt Cullen of Virginia, Minn., is playing left wing on Nashville's second line. Cullen has three goals and four assists in 21 games this season. On Nov. 25, he became the oldest player in franchise history to play a game (38 years, 23 days).