What a difference a captain makes.
Saku Koivu returned to the Montreal Canadiens lineup for Game 6 of their opening round series with Boston and since that time he’s completely re-affirmed his status as the team’s unquestioned leader.
And perhaps its best player, period.
Subtract the two goals Montreal scored within the first 2:02 of Game 1 versus the Bruins and the team was actually averaging less than two goals per game through five contests without Koivu in the lineup. But once the feisty Finn was inserted back in the mix, the offense perked up.
Through Game 2 of the Philadelphia series, the Canadiens were averaging 3.75 goals per game in four contests with Koivu in the lineup. The center had pitched in one goal and six points in those four games, to say nothing of his proficiency in the faceoff circle.
His presence provides balance between the top two lines, opening things up for Tomas Plekanec and whichever pair of wingers he’s playing with on a given night. And if Plekanec’s line happens to be attracting the top defense pairing, that creates a seam for Koivu to work his magic. And as anyone who consistently watches the slick passer knows, Koivu doesn’t need a lot of room to do damage.
What may come as a surprise to some, however, is the fact Koivu is also pretty adept at creating room for himself. Not that he’s ever going to be called a bruiser or confused with Cam Neely, but Koivu doesn’t let slight size deter him from playing a physical game.
He’s often the first forechecker on the puck and he doesn’t go into corners trying to whack pucks loose with the blade of his stick. He lines up defenders and throws his shoulder into them in an attempt to jar the puck free. When a guy who is 5-foot-10 goes into the corners like there’s a map to a million dollars pasted on the glass, other guys on the bench take notice.
Alex Kovalev has drawn chants of “MVP” this season, but the way Montreal’s play picked up with its captain back steering the ship leaves little doubt Koivu is the man who makes things go.
This column also appears in the Montreal Metro newspaper.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears every second Friday.
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