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Matt Cooke's bruising style could be important for Canucks in playoffs

In others words he's exactly what the Vancouver Canucks will need when they open their best-of-seven NHL playoff series against the Dallas Stars Wednesday night at GM Place (CBC, 10 p.m. ET).

"I played against him and I hated him," said Canuck defenceman Willie Mitchell, who had his fill of Cooke when he played for the Minnesota Wild. "He'll be a big part of our post-season success if we do have some.

"He's a guy who gets in there, gets dirty, agitates. He creates turnovers because of his speed and his awareness out there."

If Vancouver hopes to advance to the second round of the playoffs for just the second time since 1996, they'll need Roberto Luongo to continue his outstanding goaltending and Daniel and Henrik Sedin to provide some offence.

Chances are they'll also need Cooke to get his nose dirty in the corners and score some timely goals.

"There's not a lot of room and it's physical," Cooke said about playoff hockey. "That's how I try to play all the time."

There isn't a lot of poetry in Cooke's game. His style is more like one of those magazines that come wrapped in brown paper.

The Belleville, Ont., native likes to yap, whack people with his stick, catch them with an elbow. If the offending party decides to drop the gloves, Cooke can disappear like Houdini.

He also creates turnovers, forces defencemen out of position and beat goalies with a deflection or a quick shot.

"He's been effective for us in the past," said Canuck captain Markus Naslund. "I think he's learned to play with an edge but still be under control."

Dallas's Brenden Morrow called Cooke a spark plug.

"He's an energy guy with a lot of speed but he can put the puck in the net," said Morrow. "He's a pretty reliable guy for their team.

"If he draws a penalty at the right time it can turn a series around."

In 31 playoff games with the Canucks, Cooke has eight goals. That's one more than Brendan Morrison, five more than Daniel Sedin, the same as Henrik Sedin and just one less than Naslund.

Heading into the playoffs, the Canucks and Stars are mirror images of each other. They split four games in the regular season, all 2-1 results.

"These teams play a similar style of game," said Stars coach Dave Tippett. "Both teams have very good goaltending.

"That leads to tight competitive games. The 2-1 games you've seen are a sign of two teams that don't give up a lot and try to capitalize on opportunities."

The Canucks finished first in the Northwest Division - claiming the third seed in the Western Conference - and set franchise records with 49 wins and 105 points.

The Stars had a better record - 50-25-7 for 107 points - but are seeded sixth after finishing behind Anaheim and San Jose in the Pacific Division.

Vancouver scored 222 goals during the regular season, the least of any Western playoff teams, and allowed 201. The Stars scored 226, second-fewest, and allowed 197.

Like many of his teammates, the 28-year-old Cooke had a slow start to the season. It took him nine games to earn his first point and 11 contests to register a goal. At Christmas, he had one goal and five assists.

Cooke ended the year with 10 goals and 20 assists. He played some of his best hockey down the stretch, registering four goals and seven assists in the final 13 games.

"The start of the year wasn't how I had planned it," said Cooke, who earned $US1.5 million this year. "I went through some bumps in the road that maybe I wasn't expected and maybe affected me more that I would like to admit.

"At Christmas I had some conversations with a lot of people. I had to get back to the player I was before, not worry about points and all the other stuff. Just to go out and play, have fun with it. That's what I've done."

Near the end of the season coach Alain Vigneault put Cooke on a line with Morrison and Naslund. The unit played well and will start the playoffs together.

"We thought we'd be together at the start of the year," said Cooke. "That's hindsight and it's gone.

"By not being together it's made all three of us stronger players, stronger mentally. I think that will help us in the playoffs."

The Stars will open the playoffs without Eric Lindros (groin) and Matthew Barnaby (concussion).

The Canucks will be without Ryan Kesler who is recovering from hip surgery.



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