Sports

Saku Koivu's defense could make difference in Ducks' bid for the Cup

SportsAnaheim DucksNHLSaku KoivuAndrew CoglianoDaniel WinnikMontreal Canadiens

Saku Koivu saw his retiring teammate, friend and Finnish countryman Teemu Selanne skate around the arena bathed in cheers last week in the Ducks' final regular-season home game.

Moved, of course, Koivu quickly set aside the moment that's so close to home.

Because there are still games to win.

Koivu, 39, could be just as close to retirement as Selanne, but the 18-year NHL veteran center hasn't officially announced his intentions.

"Very private guy, very unselfish — been like that a long time," Koivu's linemate Andrew Cogliano said. "And because he is, he's a leader on this team."

Koivu's team-first mentality has functioned like the quiet heartbeat for the Ducks, who for the first time in franchise history earned the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference playoffs and take a 2-0 first-round lead over the Dallas Stars to Texas when the series resumes Monday.

The former Montreal Canadiens captain has never won a Stanley Cup.

Twelve times in his career, Koivu has produced 30 or more assists in a season — he had a personal-best 53 in 2006-07 — and his 11 goals this season marked the 15th time he's reached double figures.

Yet, in this campaign, Koivu's attention has been focused mostly on defense.

Koivu, Cogliano and Daniel Winnik have been charged by Ducks Coach Bruce Boudreau with hounding the opponents' first lines, and Koivu's past power-play assignments have been eliminated.

"He was put in a situation he's never been in his entire career, and he's responded very well," Winnik said. "I've never heard him complain one bit about his role with the team. He takes pride in shutting down the other team's top lines."

Koivu has gotten to the point he realizes his duties could well be the difference between elimination and the Cup.

"It comes down to that defensive part of the game, and when we play strong in the neutral zone, we're a real tough team to beat," he said.

That same loyalty to teamwork and fierce inner resolve made Koivu one of Montreal's most beloved players.

In 2001, he was diagnosed with life-threatening non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, recovered and returned to play in April 2002, generating a greeting from Canadiens fans that remains a must-watch YouTube event.

The 5-foot-10, 180-pound Koivu's return to Anaheim this season was only a matter of him telling General Manager Bob Murray he wanted to play.

As the Ducks sprinted to a 20-0-2 start at home, Koivu and his linemates kept the opposing top lines in check — overall, he was plus-three in goal differential while on the ice.

In January, he made a stunning decision.

Rather than join eventual Olympic hockey tournament MVP Selanne, 43, on Team Finland, four-time Olympic medalist Koivu opted to skip the three weeks in Sochi, Russia, in order to rest for the playoffs.

Boudreau said he was in awe of such commitment.

Koivu said the move, along with being a healthy scratch from two late-season back-to-back games, has worked, preserving his energy for the most important games.

Raising the stakes that high for this playoff run clearly reveals Koivu's interest in grabbing hockey's brass ring this spring.

"That's no secret," he said.

What remains hidden is Koivu's concrete position on retirement.

"Well, that's … I haven't thought that far away," Koivu said. "You want [the Cup], I've worked for it all these years and retiring would probably be easier if [winning it] happened.

"But right now, you try to keep the focus on the game and not think about the future. You start doing that, you lose the focus, that intensity you're trying to find. You hope that's going to happen.

"And if it does, then I might have an answer for you."

Koivu's most gratifying offensive satisfaction of the campaign was Cogliano producing a career-high 21 goals.

"Very calming influence on the ice, because he knows what to do, plays the game the right way," Cogliano said. "When you have someone who plays at both ends of the rink — who's been at a high level for a long time — it makes your life a lot easier."

Boudreau said Koivu is a favorite choice for ice time in the final minutes to help seal a victory.

"I can put him in there and something good is usually going to happen," Boudreau said.

Koivu's situation and contributions are a strong motivator for the Ducks.

"We realize as a team it's Teemu's last kick at the can, and maybe Sak's," Winnik said. "You see this in other sports, too, how a team rallies around a guy who may be playing his last year with the team. … Hopefully, we do the same for Sak."

lance.pugmire@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimespugmire

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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SportsAnaheim DucksNHLSaku KoivuAndrew CoglianoDaniel WinnikMontreal Canadiens
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