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Chad Graff / St. Paul Pioneer Press, Published April 15 2014

Wild's Koivu knows playoff berths can be rare

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 the 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.”

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