Before Thomas Vanek started doing magic tricks with the puck, and the Wild turned the latest edition of its rivalry with Winnipeg into two hours requiring a laugh track, there was Mikko Koivu doing the things he used to do routinely and is now doing again.
There’s a new way to look at the chattering-classes debate over whether Koivu should remain the Wild’s captain.
With Zach Parise injured and Koivu performing like the Wild’s best player, maybe Koivu shouldn’t be wearing just one “C.”
Maybe he should be wearing more of them than did goalie Vladislav Tretiak, back when every Soviet Union jersey bore the CCCP.
Koivu is performing like a younger version of himself, and with Parise out, the Wild desperately need Koivu to revert to being the spry, end-to-end, quasi-franchise player they required him to be before Parise and Ryan Suter remade the roster.
“Really strong,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said of Koivu, as well as linemates Nino Niederreiter and Jason Zucker. “That line just continues to do what they’ve done all year and that’s just play the game. What goes unnoticed the whole time is that Mikko’s out there against their best players, their best offensive players, shift after shift.
“The easy things to talk about are the points they are getting and how he’s helped Nino and Zuck, just the puck possession that that line has. He’s just playing great hockey.”
Koivu set up the first goal of the game with a dominant shift that culminated with him making a spin move behind the Winnipeg net and feeding Niederreiter for a tap-in.
Koivu leads the team in points, is easily the Wild’s best faceoff man and remains an excellent defensive forward. In 14 games, he is producing at a pace that recalls his best seasons, from 2008 to 2011.
He has benefitted from and contributed to the growth of Niederreiter and Zucker.
“I think you’re always trying to help them, but at the same time you need them to help you out as well,” Koivu said. “That’s been working. They’ve been supporting me, big time. That’s not always easy to do when you’re young like they are. Their speed and work ethic has been paying off.”
To keep up with them, Koivu altered his offseason workout, although he wouldn’t elaborate. He said he didn’t lose weight but was able to increase his quickness.
“I feel good, physically and mentally,” Koivu said, and for him that’s the equivalent of a cartwheel. “At the same time, I don’t think I’ve changed as a player. I think it’s easy to say you have improved if you’re scoring goals, but I think the other parts have been good.
“Sometimes you go through that if you’re in the league for a lot of years. Like any player you go through that slump or whatever you want to call that. That’s frustrating. You always want to produce and be good offensively, but I’m just going to stick with it. I did something in the offseason. I think you have to when you get older and you want to get better. It’s been working so far.”
Goalie Devan Dubnyk looked shaky in October. The defensive pairings have been in flux. Parise, Justin Fontaine and Tyler Graovac have been injured. Jason Pominville has zero goals in 14 games and might currently be capable of swinging at a piñata and not making contact.
With Parise out and a four-game road trip looming, this could have been the week that the Wild embarked on their annual coach-threatening, season-jeopardizing slump.
Instead, the Wild is 2-0 without Parise and is one of seven NHL teams with 20 points, and Koivu seemed to have discovered the Finnish fountain of revitalization.
There is no way the Wild is a better team with Parise out, not even briefly, but sport is sometimes illogical. Parise is a tremendous two-way player, but with him out the Wild seemed to have regained its defensive mindset.
Add a little Vanek magic and Koivu production, and the Wild looks capable of surviving Parise’s convalescence.