Mikko Koivu struggled to find the words.
“I don’t know how to say it in English,” Koivu, a proud Finn, said as he gnashed his teeth and looked off in the distance. The Wild’s 31-year-old captain finally settled on a word: “Frustrating.”
“I was very, very frustrated,” said Koivu, the feeling unmistakable on his face.
Koivu returned to the Wild’s lineup March 3 after missing eight weeks, 17 games and the Olympics following surgery on his right ankle. But those first five or six games, Koivu could not function at the level he expected from himself.
His ankle hurt. Skating was a chore. His game suffered, and so did the team.
“It was harder that I thought it would be,” Koivu said Monday, hours before scoring the winning goal in the Wild’s come-from-behind victory over one of the league’s stingiest teams with a lead, the Los Angeles Kings. “It’s not like it happens overnight and it feels good. It took a lot of time. I was very frustrated.”
Koivu’s ankle was throbbing (he described it as an unrelenting pressure), and it affected his skating, balance, shooting, playmaking, faceoff prowess — basically, everything. When Koivu returned from previous injuries, the warmer the ailment got, the better it felt. This frustrating injury was the complete opposite late in games.
“And this time of year, you need to get to your game as soon as you can,” Koivu said. “Sometimes it’s just not possible, but as an athlete, you don’t realize that always.”
But slowly, starting in Boston nine games ago, Koivu has begun to resemble the Koivu of old. He has split defensemen, made power moves, set up teammates, been a defensive stalwart and won big faceoffs. His play is a large reason the Wild has won three of the past five games with third-period comebacks.
In the past eight games, Koivu, the Wild’s career leading scorer, has 12 points and is plus-5. He’s riding a six-game point streak with two goals and seven assists, including three two-point games.
Thursday night, Koivu will lead the Wild into the United Center to face the Chicago Blackhawks, the team that dispatched the Wild in five games last spring and went on to win the Stanley Cup.
In that first-round playoff series, Koivu had no points. Linemate Zach Parise had one. Like Parise, Koivu said it weighed on him all offseason.
“It bothered me a long time last year how we finished and when you can’t help the team the way you want,” Koivu said. “You take a lot of pride in your game and you want to be at the level that you need to be. If it didn’t bother me, something’s wrong.”
Koivu heads into the final six games of this regular season and the postseason sounding motivated by last year’s individual and team failure.
“You can and you have to learn from the past, the good things and the bad things,” he said. “That’s something you realize as you get mature and grow up a little bit from your first years in the league. We did take steps last year. We didn’t finish the way we wanted. We learn from that. It bothers you and you want to show you can do better and we can do better as a team.”
Few players on the Wild are as scrutinized as Koivu. Critics pick and prod, wishing he’d sacrifice some defense for offense, that he’d shoot more, that he was faster. Maybe it’s because it’s his fifth season with the captain’s ‘‘C’’ or the fact that he has been Wild property for nearly 13 years, or because of his $6.75 million salary cap hit, but some seem to blame him for every pitfall, from no playoff rounds won by the Wild since 2003 to any losing streak.
“That’s unfair,” coach Mike Yeo said. “They don’t see all the little things he does night in and night out to give you a chance to win. That’s what you ask for in a leader. This is a guy that’s never going to cheat, he’s always going to do it the right way to give his team the best chance to win.
“Winning is his priority. He wants to bring a championship to Minnesota, and that’s how he plays the game.”
Superiority down the stretch
Parise rolls his eyes at the criticism Koivu receives.
“People have their opinions on different people,” Parise said. “All I’ll tell you is he’s so important. We need him playing well and to be a great player for us to be a good team, and he’s played really well as of late.
“It’s hard coming back from an injury. It’s tough because of where everyone else is at in their season — 65, 70 games. You miss two months like Mikko, you’re way behind. Everyone is fresh and flying, so it’s tough to get back into a rhythm. But he’s back playing great for us.”
Koivu is excited and nervous, all at the same time, by the tight playoff race.
“Somebody tells you they’re not thinking about the standings and where you are, I think they’re lying,” Koivu said, smiling. “But this is what you want, where every single game matters. I think you really saw that [Saturday] in Phoenix.
“That was intensity, and it’s not about who scores the goal or who makes the big play. The big picture is how we played the game, and that was a good first step. Now we have to keep building our game.”