When Mikko Koivu gets that incensed look in his steely blue eyes, even the manliest of hockey players should sprint for the Zamboni exit.
There are few scarier sights on the ice than when smoke billows from Koivu’s helmet and heated words start spewing from his mouth behind that thick Finnish accent.
In the Twitter world and blogosphere, it’s called “Angry Mikko,” and even the Wild captain’s biggest critics love “Angry Mikko.”
When “Angry Mikko” emerges on the ice, the inspired hockey player often can’t be stopped. Here are testimonials from some, uh, experts: Wild fans on Twitter:
• “Becomes a beast when angry. If he turns green, I’d say he was the Hulk.” — @jrthomer.
• “Completely different player when he is angry.” — @BonDeD_17.
• “Angry Mikko is definitely the best Mikko. Wish it was easier to fire him up.” — danejohnson23.
Koivu, a part of the Wild organization for 13½ years since being drafted sixth overall in 2001, agrees that “when I get fired up, usually I play better.”
“But I think you have to handle it the right way, too,” Koivu said. “You can’t play like that every single night either. Then you’re going to wear out for sure and get mentally exhausted. But there’s nights where I get angry and play better. I think everyone is like that. At the end, you still have to control the emotions, but sometimes it just takes over you.”
That emotion overtook Koivu on Tuesday as he watched his teammate, Keith Ballard, writhe on the ice after being hit from behind by the Islanders’ Matt Martin. Koivu could not believe there wasn’t a penalty on the play, and he shot fireballs from those unyielding eyes to accompany furious words at referees Brad Meier and Brad Watson.
Almost immediately, fans got excited. “Angry Mikko” revealed himself.
“You don’t want to disrespect the referees, but you can’t control it really at that point,” Koivu said. “Something like that happens, it’s emotional. I was right there and I was worried and then I was upset. It’s the heat of the moment. The refs, they’re emotional, too, and it’s back and forth. In the end, I always respect what they do. But when something bad like that happens, sometimes I lose my temper. Honestly, I’ve never been so scared for a teammate, and unfortunately I kind of took it out on the ref.”
Meier did the Wild a favor by throwing gas on an already burning inferno by not calling a penalty, a ruling with which the league would later agree. Koivu was a beast the rest of the game and sparked the Wild’s first comeback victory from three goals down for a regulation victory by scoring the first goal in a four-goal third period.
After a slow start this season, coach Mike Yeo started to see Koivu’s all-around play turn just before the father-son trip to Florida last month. In the past nine games, Koivu has three goals and nine points and is plus-3. The majority of his shifts have been spent in the offensive zone, and few opponents have scored when he’s on the ice. Koivu, who had the go-ahead shootout goal in the Wild’s 4-3 victory at Arizona on Saturday night, is tied for 10th in the NHL by winning 56.3 percent of his draws, and is third on the Wild with 76 shots.
This after the franchise’s all-time leading scorer had no assists in his first nine games and three points in his first 14.
Plenty in the tank
“I really think the only difference is I’m on the score sheet now,” Koivu said. “Earlier this year, I felt I was playing good but just not getting rewarded. I mean, nothing was going in. It didn’t matter where I shot it or if I passed to somebody with an empty net, it was not going in. Of course, you get worried and wonder why it’s not coming, but you can’t change who you are, you can’t change the way you play.
“If you do the little things right, usually the points come. Individually, you always know when if you’re playing good or not, but I also realize that if you’re on the power play or one of the offensive guys, you need to produce, too.”
Asked if he started to worry he was no longer the player he once was, the 31-year-old laughed and said, “No. I’m not that old yet.”
“You just start to think, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ You’re going to go through that every year, but this one was a little longer than it used to be,” he said, laughing.
Leader of leaders
Koivu has been a lightning rod for criticism by some fans. He wears the captain’s “C,” yet isn’t quoted as often as Zach Parise only because Parise’s a better quote in his native language. But Koivu is always available to the press. Yeo couldn’t care less if a player wears a “C,” an “A,” or nothing. In fact, Yeo refers to Koivu, Parise and Ryan Suter as his “captains,” and includes Jason Pominville in the Wild’s “leadership group.”
Still, there’s a perception by his critics that Koivu shouldn’t wear the “C.”
“It’s very unfair,” Yeo said. “I know the way the brain works is you see what you want to see. What you believe is quite often what you’re going to see. If you think he’s not playing well, then you’re going to miss the five good things he does and you’re going to see the one bad thing. That’s the way the human mind works.
“What I can tell you is we evaluate every game, every player without bias. We make sure we go through the video very carefully, and I can assure you his game has been very strong lately.”