Center Mikko Koivu is the longest-tenured player on the Wild, having made his NHL debut in November 2005. Now 32, the Wild captain has reached the playoffs four times, losing in the first round in three of those series before advancing to the second round for the first time last season, where the Wild eventually fell to Chicago in six games.
But this year’s Wild squad might have the best chance to win the Stanley Cup of any team Koivu has played on. This is as hot a team as this state has seen in recent memory, as the Wild is 26-6-2 over the past 34 games since acquiring goalie Devan Dubnyk from Arizona. It brought to mind the run of the 2003 Twins, who were 44-49 and 7½ games back at the All-Star break when they acquired outfielder Shannon Stewart from Toronto, then finished 46-23 the rest of the way to win the American League Central by four games.
Koivu was asked if the stellar play of Dubnyk was the key to the turnaround.
“Obviously he has been a big reason of that, but I think I feel like two months ago or so we realized the identity we needed to have to be a successful team and I thought we started playing a lot better,” Koivu said. “First off it was defensively, and then ever since I think the confidence has been growing and growing, and then we get some success offensively as well. It’s all the little details we have been doing better, and then confidence is growing as a team. It’s the whole picture, as we’ve been doing a little bit better at each and every thing.”
Koivu said that Dubnyk’s play has been the anchor for that resurgence.
“I think he has been calm,” Koivu said. “He has been stopping the puck, and there’s not a lot of rebounds or anything like that. He has been confident ever since he got to us, and we’ve been trying to help him as much as we can.
“I think just ever since he got here he has been a man between the pipes. I think you can see his confidence getting better and better. I don’t think there is one thing he is good at; I think it’s the whole game that he has been playing. He is giving us a chance to win a hockey game each and every night.”
Koivu is fourth on the team in scoring with 47 points on 14 goals and 33 assists, and he is leading Wild forwards in average time on ice with 19:18 per game. He was asked if the team’s confidence is high heading into each game.
“Every game is different and I think you always have to build the confidence inside of one game,” he said. “I think most of the games we have been getting good starts, which helps, always. We’ve been getting good starts and been able to keep it going for the whole game. That’s what you want and what you need, especially at this time of the year. Every game is a new challenge, but we’ve been able to get ready for each and every one. There are still a couple more games to go, and we want to get better each and every day and each and every game.”
Koivu has been playing alongside wingers Chris Stewart and Nino Niederreiter on the second line, a larger, more physical group. Stewart, acquired at the trade deadline a month ago from Buffalo, has three goals and six assists in 14 games since joining the Wild. Niederreiter has 24 goals and 13 assists.
“They are doing good, and it’s kind of a pleasure to play with those two. I’m very happy that they’re going the way they are,” he said. “I’m just trying to help them out and they’re helping me a lot. There’s still things we can do a lot better, and we want to get better as an individual, as a line, and from there as a team, as well.”
Yes, it’s amazing to think that just about two months ago, fans and media alike were speculating that coach Mike Yeo, now 148-107-33 in his fourth season with the Wild, might lose his job after a slow start. But Koivu said players and coaches know that losing brings questions, and the way Yeo handled those questions earlier this season helped steady the team.
Pitino might leave
Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague is going to have to come up with some great incentives to keep men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino if Pitino is offered the job at Alabama.
The Crimson Tide already has a great basketball facility and a hotbed of talent in Alabama. It can offer more money, and have a much better chance of putting together a winner than Pitino currently has with the Gophers.
Looking at the Final Four, it’s hard to believe the Gophers beat Michigan State at East Lansing this season, despite the poor year they had. The Spartans turned their season around after the loss to the Gophers, including Sunday’s Elite Eight victory over Louisville, a team that handled the Gophers in the season opener in Puerto Rico.
• The Gophers men’s track and field squad added Sean Donnelly, a four-time Division III national champion thrower for Mount Union who will have one year of outdoor eligibility next season. The Gophers are looking like they could be national championship contenders next year with runners such as Bradley Johnson, a sophomore who recently won the 800 meters at the Baldy Castillo Invitational in Tempe, Ariz., and sprinters such as Berkley Edwards, who is also a running back on the football team.
• Bovada, a gambling website out of Las Vegas, has the Twins as the longshot to win the American League Central at 18-1 odds. Despite winning the AL pennant in 2014, the Royals have the next-worst odds at 9-2, while the Tigers are the favorite at 11-5.
• After Wednesday night’s 113-99 loss to Toronto at Target Center, Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins led all NBA rookies in scoring (16.3 points per game) and minutes (35.8). He is fourth in steals (1.05), and fifth in rebounding (4.4). … Fellow rookie Zach LaVine has started 10 of the previous 11 games and is averaging 17.3 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.2 assists over that stretch.
• Nehwon Norkeh, a former Cooper High School baseball standout, is now an outfielder at Angelo State and one of the top Division II prospects in the country. This summer he will play in the Northwoods League for Alexandria, which is coached by former Twins infielder Al Newman.
• Matt Abdelmassih announced he was leaving his assistant coaching position at Iowa State to return to his alma mater St. John’s, which recently hired Chris Mullin as its new coach. Abdelmassih started his career with the Wolves front office before following Fred Hoiberg to Ames in 2010. At Iowa State, Abdelmassih helped recruit Royce White after the former Hopkins High School standout left the Gophers.
Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 7:40, 8:40 and 9:20 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. firstname.lastname@example.org