A night he had waited so long to experience, one he wanted so badly to end in victory, one that had him so nervous it affected him physically, very nearly ended in disastrous fashion for Saku Koivu
But instead, thanks to Bobby Ryan's shootout winner, it couldn't have ended much better.
Koivu watched helplessly from the penalty box as his former team tied the game against his current one with only 12.6 seconds left in regulation time. But Ryan was the only successful shooter in the shootout, thereby giving both Koivu the happy ending he so badly wanted and the Anaheim Ducks a 4-3 win Saturday night against the Montreal Canadiens.
Shortly after Jonas Hiller stopped Brian Gionta on Montreal's final shootout attempt - capping a marvelous night for the Ducks goalie with 37 saves, including 21 in the third period - Koivu was announced as the game's second star.
He was in fact voted the first star by the fans through online and mobile balloting, but overtime and shootout game-winners are automatically given that honor.
When Koivu skated out of the visitor's tunnel, the gut-wrenching game now behind him and an emotional hurdle now cleared, he stayed on the ice and reciprocated the applause he was receiving from the fans he played in front of for 14 years, 10 of them as captain.
It was a fairy tale ending Koivu will never forget.
"I don't see any better way than what happened today, with how it went," a visibly relieved Koivu said. "Especially for me personally, getting the win and getting the reaction like I did. It's an amazing feeling. It's been almost two years since I left. I'm really happy we went through this, and it's a good feeling that we can move on now and it's behind us."
The ending was very much like the beginning of this night -- bookended with emotion.
Koivu stepped on to the ice for the game at the very same moment Canadiens goalie Carey Price led his team out of the dressing room, so it was difficult to tell who in fact the crowd was cheering for.
But it became obvious when the Canadiens flashed a shot of Koivu from the game where he returned from cancer in 2002 towards the end of the Canadian national anthem -- and 21,273 fans in the Bell Centre roared their approval.
The present-day Koivu stood on the blue line, just as he did when he received an eight-minute standing ovation that day nearly nine years ago - except this time with a full head of hair - and took in the whole sight.
He raised his stick in the air once to acknowledge the reception he was receiving, and the ovation only intensified. His Ducks teammates then gathered near their bench - something that was planned in advance according to coach Randy Carlyle - leaving Koivu alone on the ice.
When he motioned for them to come join him they refused, and the ovation grew in intensity.
It came nowhere close to matching the one Koivu received that night in 2002, but it was heartfelt and touching nonetheless considering this was a player on the visiting team.
"Looking around the rink, there's a lot of familiar faces and you're trying to stay calm and keep your focus on the game, which was extremely tough," Koivu said. "But at that point I didn't really think about the game and what was going to happen, there were a lot of other things going through my mind. April of 2002, the standing ovation back then and how I was feeling similar feelings right now. Sometimes it's tough to find words for the emotions, and this was one of those nights."
Once the ovation subsided, Koivu lined up for the opening faceoff against Scott Gomez, the player who adopted his old No. 11 prior to this season -- and also the player acquired to replace Koivu when he wasn't offered a contract by the Canadiens following the 2008-09 season.
Gomez whispered a few words to Koivu as they both approached the faceoff circle.
"He asked me if I wanted to win the faceoff," Koivu said, laughing. "But I didn't hear him, and then the puck was laying there and he still won it."
The game quickly settled down from that emotional high into a bit of a stale affair until the third, when with the Ducks ahead 3-1 and seemingly in control the Canadiens poured it on, outshooting Anaheim 23-5.
"I thought we got better as the game progressed," Canadiens coach Jacques Martin said. "The third was our best period."
But the barrage didn't bear any fruit until Mathieu Darche tipped Yannick Weber's point shot past Hiller with 3:40 remaining to give the Canadiens a chance.
Montreal had the Ducks pinned in their own end for much of the following two minutes of action, and ultimately it led to Koivu taking his third penalty of the game, a tripping call on James Wisniewski that gave the Canadiens a power play over the final 1:15 of regulation.
With Price pulled to make it a 6-on-4 advantage, Hiller made brilliant saves on Max Pacioretty and P.K. Subban, but had little chance when Pacioretty jammed home a rebound from the side of the net with only 12.6 seconds left on the clock for his second goal of the game, coming on Montreal's 40th shot.
"We made some mistakes with a 3-1 lead," Carlyle said. "We turned the puck over, and the momentum they gained off of their power play made it a little bit more exciting than it should have been. We were forced to go into a defend mode, and any time you let a team like the Montreal Canadiens come at you, they've got lots of skill and they're going to find a way."
The less-heralded homecoming of Maxim Lapierre - traded to Anaheim from Montreal on New Year's Eve after four seasons with the Canadiens - was met with a smattering of boos for the local product. And he had his head down at the Ducks bench after he was on the ice for Pacioretty's game-tying goal, wanting a win just as badly as Koivu, who was standing next to him after making the skate of shame across the ice from the penalty box.
But ultimately, that shame turned to joy, and Koivu got the farewell moment he was denied 18 months earlier when he signed with the Ducks.
"It didn't go the way we planned, with a tying goal at the end and myself getting three penalties," Koivu said. "But I'm relieved, I'm happy that it's done. It was emotional enough to get ready for this game, then the reaction I got from the fans, there's not really words to describe the feelings that I had out there and again after the game. It was a great night, they're memories that will stay with me for the rest of my life."