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Wild captain Koivu knows how precious playoffs are

USA TODAY Sports Minnesota forward and captain Mikko Koivu has a longer tenure with the Wild than coach Mike Yeo, general manager Chuck Fletcher and owner Craig Leipold.

By Chad Graff

St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL — Mikko Koivu has a protein shake in one hand. With his other hand, he begins wiping down his equipment and organizes the pads the same as he does after every practice.

They’re wiped free of ice and sweat and meticulously placed where they’re always placed. Gloves go on top of his locker stall, where he has all six of them — more than any other Wild player — organized in a pyramid.

On this Saturday afternoon, he’s breaking in a new pair of skates in advance of the playoffs, so he pays extra attention to those as he removes them. So when his post-practice routine is complete, only a handful of teammates are still in the locker room — mostly just the team’s younger players, who stay on the ice long after practice is complete.

Koivu takes a seat and watches the young players joke amongst themselves. It doesn’t feel like that long ago that Koivu was one of them, a first-round pick just beginning to make his mark in the NHL.

Now he’s the longest tenured Wild player, his time in the organization predating coach Mike Yeo, general manager Chuck Fletcher and owner Craig Leipold.

Koivu, 31, looks at the Wild’s young players — there are five in the active lineup 23 or younger — and thinks about how much has changed for him. More than anything, the only full-time captain in team history has learned just how hard it is to make it to the playoffs.

“For some reason, when you’re younger, you don’t realize that,” Koivu said. “You just think, ‘Oh, I’m going to do it again next year.’ But the older you get, the more experience you have, you realize it’s not that easy.”

Koivu has played in 601 regular-season games over nine seasons, but he’s only been to the Stanley Cup playoffs three times, and never made it past the first round.

As the Wild prep for the franchise’s fifth Western Conference playoff appearance, starting Thursday at top seed Colorado, there’s as much pressure on Koivu as any Wild skater to avenge a lopsided, 4-1 series loss to the Chicago Blackhawks last season.

Koivu failed to earn a point offensively, and matched against Chicago’s do-it-all center Jonathan Toews, finished a minus-6.

He certainly wasn’t the only Wild player to struggle against the eventual Stanley Cup champions, but as the team’s captain — and the player the Wild chose to build around after letting Marian Gaborik walk as a free agent in 2009 — his struggles were most conspicuous.

“When you’re not able to (produce), obviously you get frustrated and disappointed and you want to do better,” Koivu said. “You have to learn from that individually. You want to be better, and this is my chance for that.”

Each season that ends without a Stanley Cup lasts longer than previous season.

“It sticks with you longer than when you were younger,” Koivu said.

Koivu became a father to a baby girl just before the season started.

For the first time in his life, Koivu is having thoughts about life beyond hockey. There are no thoughts of retirement — “I’m not that old,” he said with a laugh — but and understanding that he won’t be a pro hockey player forever.

“Before, you just went year by year and got ready for the next one,” Koivu said. “But now it’s something you think about. But I think at the same time, you enjoy it even more. When you realize it goes so fast, you enjoy every single moment.”

There is much to appreciate these days. Koivu is playing some of his best hockey, and the Wild will bring a 6-1-1 streak into the playoffs, the lone loss a 7-3 setback to Nashville in a meaningless season finale Sunday.

Since March 18, Koivu leads the league with 14 assists in 14 games and has added three goals. It’s a long way from January, when he had surgery to repair a fractured ankle — suffered blocking a shot — that knocked him out of the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, where he would have been the Finns’ captain.

He returned March 3, and it took him a few games to return to full-speed. But, he said, “I think my defensive game has been better actually.”

But lately, coach Mike Yeo has been willing to match his third, checking line against opponents’ top lines, including during a 6-1 victory over Sidney Crosby and the Penguins on April 5. If Yeo does that against Colorado, it would free Koivu from being assigned a defense-first role.

Whatever role he plays, his production will be monitored closely by fans eager to see a playoff run like the one in 2003, when the overmatched Wild beat heavily favored Colorado and Vancouver to advance to the Western Conference final.

Since then, the Wild are 4-12 in three playoff series, twice completely overmatched by Stanley Cup champions — Anaheim in 2007 and Chicago last season.

Yeo doesn’t want his team, and especially his captain, getting bogged down in past failures.

“This is a new playoffs, so take what you need to make sure that you’re hungry,” he said. “But I know that (Koivu) was hungry last year, so you have to make sure you’re not taking any negatives out of it, too. If he doesn’t score in the first game, he can’t all the sudden be saying he needs to stand up and do it faster.”

On a team featuring several young players, Koivu’s been reminded opportunities like the one that begins Thursday don’t come often. As he watched those young players clowning around after last Saturday’s practice, the captain got another dose of reality.

“The older you get, the more you realize how hard it is to make the playoffs,” he said. “And on top of that, how hard it is to have success in the playoffs.”

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.