ST. PAUL, Minn. – The memory still burns for Mikko Koivu.
In another contentious game against rival Vancouver back in November, Canucks defenceman Mattias Ohlund responded to a high hit by slashing the back of Koivu’s leg and putting the young Minnesota Wild centre in the hospital.
It took 24 games and nearly two months for the broken bone in Koivu’s leg to heal. Ever since he returned in mid-January, he’s been taking that pent up aggression out on his opponents.
“It’s tough, especially when it happened the way it did,” Koivu said Wednesday. “That’s frustrating. But I think after I got back, I guess that it took a couple weeks, but I think probably right now I feel fresh and ready to go.”
Since returning Jan. 11 against Chicago, the six-foot-three, 200-pound Koivu has blossomed into the type of two-way, power centre the Wild envisioned when they drafted him sixth overall in 2001. He has six goals and 19 assists in 35 games since coming back, and more importantly has given the Wild a physical presence at centre that they sorely missed in his absence.
“Mikko’s upside is incredible,” said forward Mark Parrish, who compared him to two-way stalwart Michael Peca. “His size and his strength and his determination and his intelligence, he’s got it all. He’s got all the tools that every general manager and every coach looks for.”
The timing of the injury couldn’t have been worse for Koivu, who was really coming into his own in the first 19 games of the season before the cheap shot from Ohlund, which earned him a four-game suspension.
Koivu spent the first week of his return still skating with pain, and it’s been a steady progression back into full swing for the brother of Canadiens star Saku Koivu.
“Maybe the first two, three games, you could tell he was coming back from an injury,” coach Jacques Lemaire said. “Then he had a couple good games and then he fell back. Now he’s pretty close to where he was before.”
Not coincidentally, the Wild have returned to the Western Conference contenders they were before Koivu went down. They enter Thursday night’s game against Calgary with a chance to clinch the first Northwest Division title in franchise history.
With the playoffs looming next week, they have won three straight games and are 6-2-1 in their past nine.
“Three, four weeks ago, we were kind of discouraged with the way players were responding,” Lemaire said. “Now we’re back to playing as a team, which will give us a chance to win. Otherwise there’s no chance.”
Koivu is reluctant to take any credit for the improved play, despite a breathtaking three-assist game against Edmonton in March. He has also been a demon in the face-off circle for a team that sorely needs a specialist on the draw.
He was 10-for-14 in a win over Colorado on Sunday and 7-1 in the third period against Edmonton last week.
“It’s kind of tough to describe yourself,” Koivu said. “The first couple games it was still sore and I didn’t have the strength on it. But I tried not to think about it at that time. And it’s obvious if you’ve been out for two months you can’t be at your best right away.”
If Koivu won’t talk about himself, Parrish doesn’t hesitate to do it for him.
“He’s a guy that when we’re up a goal, down a goal, tied, no matter what the score is or what the situation, that we look at him and not expect or hope, but just know that he’s going to do something,” Parrish said. “Whether it’s come up with a big play in the defensive zone or set up or score a big goal at the other end, he really does it all.”
Lemaire, of course, loves what Koivu does on the defensive end. He has spent most of the season as the second-line centre with Brian Rolston and Pierre-Marc Bouchard on the wings, two offensive-minded players who have the freedom to be that way thanks to Koivu’s intensity on the other end.
“He’s very solid with the puck,” Lemaire said. “I know he wants to be on the scoring line all the time. But I just hope that he’ll take what I’m asking from him. That he’ll take it seriously and do his best because this is how he’s going to help this team. He’s the guy you can put anywhere, anytime and he’s going to make the line go well.”