Before and after Wednesday’s game against Ottawa, Wild coach Mike Yeo uttered the word “leadership” a dozen times in his pre- and postgame press scrums. He raves about the Wild’s leadership often — understandable when he’s got one current captain, two former captains and a defenseman who plays half the game.
But Yeo all but promised heading into this particular game that Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Jason Pominville and Ryan Suter would not only help the Wild brush Tuesday’s awful effort in Montreal aside, they would lead the Wild on the ice during a telling response.
By game’s end, the Wild won 4-3 in large part because of Koivu’s late winning goal and two assists, Parise’s two assists, Pominville’s power-play goal and Suter’s customary unfaltering 31-minute endeavor.
“It’s easy for me as a coach to be real confident when we have the type of leaders we do,” Yeo said.
Exhibit A recently is Koivu.
On Oct. 30, the Wild captain arrived at practice to discover that for the first time since the Wild signed Parise, he would not start as Parise’s center during a Nov. 1 game against Montreal.
Instead of huffing and puffing, at least outwardly, Koivu agreed it was time to try splitting the two because they each had four even-strength points in the first 13 games. He also admitted his production — one goal, seven assists, 30 shots — wasn’t up to snuff, saying, “it’s my job to produce offensively.”
Now, naturally, it didn’t take Yeo long against Montreal to reunite Koivu and Parise, and the two have been a tag team in every subsequent game. But whether it’s a coincidence or the brief split from Parise got Koivu’s attention, Koivu’s game has been on an upward climb ever since.
Since Nov. 1, the Wild is 8-1-1. In the past eight games, Koivu has scored four goals and 12 points, including winning goals during the Wild’s past two victories with 3:12 left against Winnipeg and 2:57 left at Ottawa.
“He’s making more plays,” Parise said, “but it just feels like when he’s got the puck, he’s got more confidence with it. Now that he has got a couple goals, he’s shooting more now, which is always a good thing. But you can just tell he’s playing with a little bit of swagger now, and that’s good for our line.”
Koivu, who has 418 career points (20 from becoming the Wild’s all-time leading scorer), says he hasn’t changed his game but agrees that when the puck starts to go in and the points start to accumulate, confidence inherently follows and you just feel “like you have an extra second” to make a play.
The first sign of that “swagger” came in the first game of Koivu’s recent hot streak. It was Nov. 5 in a blowout win over Calgary. He scored a game-tying goal, then assisted on two others, including a highlight-reel tick-tack-toe tally by Parise. The former Devils captain labeled Koivu’s setup a “world-class pass.”
Nov. 15 against Florida, Koivu assisted on two goals and redeemed himself for a turnover that led to the Panthers’ tying goal with a vintage Koivu power move out of the corner to set up linemate Charlie Coyle’s winner.
Against Ottawa, Koivu was solid right from the opening faceoff and actually had an earlier goal disallowed for kicking the puck. That would have been the first power-play goal since March 27, 2012, for the Wild’s all-time leading power-play scorer (153 points).
His winner came off a tenacious drive to between the circles after carrying the puck into the zone. A month ago, Koivu may have passed. Instead, he snapped the puck to the back of the twine to quiet Ottawa’s lively crowd.
Yeo loves that Koivu’s game has gone to “another level” since saying he needed to contribute more. “That’s leadership. That’s what it is. When your captain is saying, ‘I’ve got better and I’ll do better,’ it’s one thing to say it, it’s another thing to go out and do it.”