Every week, the NHL honors three stars, players who outperformed their peers over the prior seven days. It's a distinction that has a strong correlation to production: score a lot of points, stop a lot of pucks, and you put yourself in the running.
Mikko Koivu was named the NHL's Third Star on Monday on the strength of eight points in three games last week. Those numbers are nice, but it's everything else Koivu does, much of which will be on display Monday against the Dallas Stars, that tells the full story of the Wild's captain.
"We always look at points, and goals, and assists," Head Coach Mike Yeo said. "But what you don't factor into that is how many goals that they prevent as well."
Koivu does things conducive to winning hockey games. He plays against the other team's top line, he eats up defensive-zone starts, and he drives puck possession.
Those may not be the criteria when deciding things like weekly Three Stars honors, but they are recognized by Koivu's coach and teammates, who know how important the captain is to the Wild's pulse.
"We don't shelter Mikko," Yeo said. "You put him out there against top guys night after night, you put him out there in tough situations, d-zone faceoff starts, and he gets the job done."
In facing a Stars team that has the NHL's top goal scorer in Jamie Benn, and two players tied for second in the scoring race in Benn and Tyler Seguin (who play on the same line), Koivu's defensive prowess becomes all the more important.
In the Wild's first two games against the Stars, Koivu played a combined 16:21 against Benn and 19:06 against Seguin at even-strength, more than any other Wild skater.
"It's obviously a skilled team," Koivu said. "They play with a lot of speed, and so from top to bottom you have to be ready to work as a unit, and try to stay out of the box. We've been good defensively lately, so we have to keep building, and for sure it's a good challenge tonight."
And as Koivu goes, so does the Wild. A return to its normally stout defensive form buoyed the Wild to a season-long nine-game point streak that was snapped on Saturday against the Nashville Predators.
The Wild allowed 1.7 goals per-game during its points streak (the lowest in the NHL over those 21 days) as opposed to 2.7 goals per-game it allowed through the first 20 games of the season.
That stingy defensive play, led by its defensively sound captain was a hallmark of the streak.
"As a line, as a team, we try to build on our game, so it always starts in the d-zone, and then we go from there," Koivu said. "You have to defend well to be able to create, and that's what we're finally doing."
The only difference last week was, Koivu had the offensive production to match his defensive play.
"Some nights it's going in, and some nights it's harder to get goals," Koivu said. "You have to just stick with it, and offensively, I had a good week, but also team-wise … we played very good as a team. That's when individuals come out as well."
None of this changes what Koivu has meant and will continue to mean for Minnesota.
"Mikko's defensive game hasn't changed," Yeo said. "He's playing the same way, he's rock solid, he's helping out on faceoffs, he's killing penalties, he's doing all the things defensively that he always has, and offensively you can tell that he's feeling it right now."
WILD TO DRESS SAME LINEUP
For the third consecutive game, Erik Haula will be a healthy scratch to make way for Jarret Stoll, whom the Wild claimed off waivers last Tuesday.
"This is nothing against [Haula]," Yeo said. "We thought very hard about him coming into this game, we decided to go with the same lineup, but again, [Haula] was playing good hockey."
What it's turned into for the Wild and Yeo is a numbers game. Finally fully healthy, Minnesota has the luxury of 13 forwards. For the first quarter of the season, the Wild was leaning on Iowa for call-ups to fill out its lineup.
"There's a mutual agreement that I've been playing well," Haula said. "Obviously I'm not happy that I'm not in the lineup, and decisions are made that are made, and … I just try to work, and take some of those lessons that I learned from last year."
UPDATE: Mike Reilly has been recalled from the Iowa Wild.
Here is the Wild's projected lineup:
Thomas Vanek – Mikko Koivu – Jason Zucker
Zach Parise – Mikael Granlund – Jason Pominville
Nino Niederreiter – Charlie Coyle – Justin Fontaine
Chris Porter – Jarret Stoll – Ryan Carter
Ryan Suter – Jared Spurgeon
Marco Scandella – Jonas Brodin
Nate Prosser – Matt Dumba