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Wild's Koivu emerging from family shadows

by Larry Wigge / NHL.com

Mikko Koivu has been invaluable to Wild coach Jacques Lemaire, because of his ability to play in any situation. Koivu highlights
It would be easy to detail how Mikko Koivu doesn't stack up to his more famous brother, Saku Koivu, captain of the Montreal Canadiens.

But Minnesota Wild coach Jacques Lemaire would rather simply say that the younger Koivu is his Mr. Fix-it.

Hearing that from a man who has won 11 Stanley Cups as a player and coach is the ultimate compliment.

"If I have a problem in our end, he fixes it," Lemaire said. “If I want to get two other guys going, I put Mikko with them. If I want a checking line, I put him out there. If I want a goal, I want Koivu. He can play in any situation. He plays against the top guys all the time."

And with the stakes 100 times higher in the playoffs, Koivu's value to the Wild becomes more ronounced.

"He's a guy that when we're up a goal, down a goal, tied -- no matter what the score is or what the situation -- that we look at him and not expect or hope, but just know that he's going to do something," said veteran Wild winger Mark Parrish. "Whether it's come up with a big play in the defensive zone or set up or score a big goal at the other end, he really does it all. And ..."

Parrish scratched his head knowing that Mikko is just in his third NHL season and is still growing into his body and his role in the National Hockey League before continuing.

"Mikko's upside is incredible," Parrish added. "His size and his strength and his determination and his intelligence, he's got it all. He's got all the tools that every general manager and every coach looks for."

After the first three games of this year's Minnesota-Colorado first-round playoff matchup, the superlatives are indeed apropos.

He had one goal and one assist in leading the Wild to a comeback that sent Game 1 into overtime before the Avs' Joe Sakic won it, 3-2. Then, in Game 2, it was Koivu's goal with 1:51 left in regulation time that gave Minnesota a brief 2-1 lead. In overtime, Mikko gained control of the puck behind the Colorado net to set the stage for Keith Carney's winning goal in a 3-2 victory. Monday night, Koivu scored Minnesota's first goal, tying the game at 1-1, in what would become another 3-2 OT victory for the Wild.

He has three goals, an assist, a plus-3 rating and is averaging more than 22 minutes per game in the series.

Though he is four inches taller and more than 25 pounds heavier, Mikko has almost always found himself in his brother's shadow. That's not surprising considering that Saku Koivu ranks right up there with Jari Kurri and Teemu Selanne as the greatest players in the history of Finland.

"Saku is 8-1/2 years older," Mikko says. “I remember when he was drafted in the first round (21st overall in the 1993 NHL Entry Draft), I was 10. He left home when I was 11 and I won't lie, it was tough trying to live up to him because he was the most popular athlete in your whole country as a kid. "Kids at school, everybody, wants you to be your brother.

"Now that I was also a first-round pick (sixth overall in 2001) and have been in the NHL for a while, I kind of look at it like I've established my own identity -- and it's kind of my time to play the game."

Mikko still admires the record Saku has made for himself as captain of the Canadiens, but he's not just Saku's little brother anymore.

Mikko began making his own mark with a 20-goal, 54-point second season with the Wild -- and that didn't count the eight shootout goals he had last season.

He came into this season knowing that his team was counting on him for the defensive play he first learned as a youngster under the tutelage of his dad, Jukka, a defenseman and later coach at the Finnish Elite League level for TPS Turku. Jukka clearly has had a firm hand in the well-rounded play of both of his sons. But, Mikko also knew this season was going to be his breakout season offensively.

The 11 goals and 31 assists he had, however, came in a season that was been short-circuited by a cracked bone in his left leg in mid-November that limited him to just 57 games. He finished the season with one goal and six assists in his last five games, once again setting the stage for Mikko to show off all of his skills.

"Saku and Mikko are two very different players," Lemaire said. "Saku uses his speed to get scoring chances. He's a very shifty player who can make a move to the left or the right. Mikko is more of a straight-ahead guy. He's bigger and more physical. And ..."

But Mikko is capable of more offense, right coach?

"Exactly," smiled Lemaire.

You can bet Jukka and Tuire Koivu, Mikko's mother, are hoping for a Minnesota-Montreal Stanley Cup Final to see their sons compete at the game's highest level. Being the son of a hockey coach and nurse in Turku showed Mikko how hard you have to work to achieve your dream.

"All I wanted to do was play hockey," Mikko said. "They could see that. They could also see how difficult it was at times, trying to live up to the standards Saku had set. They were always there for me and always had the right words of encouragement."

All I wanted to do was play hockey. They could see that. They could also see how difficult it was at times, trying to live up to the standards Saku had set. They were always there for me and always had the right words of encouragement. - Mikko Koivu
Mikko was a tall, skinny kid when he was drafted by the Wild. His skating needed work and has improved under the tutelage of assistant coach Mario Tremblay, who ironically also coached Saku in his early days in Montreal.

The Wild didn't take Mikko just because of his genes, although it never hurts to have a player on your roster whose sibling can really play the game.

"He was measured (against Saku), but it wasn't like we were taking him just because of who his brother was," Wild GM Doug Risebrough said. "It was a benefit having Saku in the family, but his father (Jukka) was also a coach and we knew Mikko would have the inherent understanding of discipline and work ethic."

Risebrough laughs at the thought that the Canadiens could have possibly wound up with both Koivus.

"I'll never forget (Wild owner) Bob Naegle coming up to me before that draft and asking who we were going to take," Risebrough remembered. "I told him I'd tell him if he really wanted to know, but ..."

Secrecy can be important in this business, and there were plenty of rumors out there that week that the Wild were going to select goaltender Dan Blackburn with their pick. Risebrough was happy with that. He didn't want anyone making a trade to move in front of Minnesota.

Risebrough continued, "Just before the draft, (Montreal Canadiens owner) George Gillett came over to our table and asked Bob who we were going to take, and I just smiled when Bob said, 'I don't know, George.' Montreal had the pick right behind us and I was worried they might be able to make a deal with someone in front of us and we'd lose Mikko."

There's always a wonderful story behind the evolution of a young player, it seems. Now, there are no secrets with how much of an impact Mikko Koivu can make.

Mr. Fix-it? Breaking out of the shadow? Let's just say that the Minnesota Wild are delighted to have this Koivu brother on their side.



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