Center Mikko Koivu hurt his right knee in Sunday's win over the Edmonton Oilers and will miss at least the next week, if not the remainder of the regular season. Even if he heals quickly, it's an unquestionable detriment to the Wild's playoff push. They are one point behind the eighth-place Nashville Predators for the final spot.
"He's been so solid for us," coach Jacques Lemaire said after Monday's practice. "He's a player that makes the other players better by playing with him."
With 18 goals and 44 assists, Koivu's career-high 62 points by far lead the team. The 26-year-old has played in all 72 games, a streak that will end Tuesday when the Wild visit the New York Rangers.
In his fourth season with Minnesota, the 2001 first-round draft pick (sixth overall) from Finland has flourished into the team's best all-around forward and been selected captain in four of six months this season. The Wild rotate that honor on a monthly basis.
Eric Belanger, James Sheppard and converted winger Dan Fritsche will center the top three lines, with Peter Olvecky playing the fourth. Depth at center has been an issue for Minnesota in recent seasons, and losing Koivu is a colossal blow.
"I don't want to see him go, but it's an opportunity for me to show what I can do," Sheppard said. "I'm still young, but at the same time I can still play hockey. It's going to be good for me. I always like challenges, and I always play better when I'm pushed."
Koivu was injured when his right knee bent awkwardly on the ice while being pulled down by Oilers forward Ales Kotalik. Koivu had an MRI on Monday morning and met with team doctors, who want the swelling and stiffness to subside for the next few days before a timetable is put on his recovery, assistant general manager Tom Lynn said.
Koivu's absence, however, will span at least the next four games. Lemaire, in his blunt French-Canadian accent, said he wouldn't be surprised if Koivu missed all 10 of the Wild's remaining contests through the final regular-season game April 11 at Columbus.
"I don't know if he's going to get back," Lemaire said, adding: "All of it is in the air right now."
Koivu's injury marred an otherwise successful Sunday in which Gaborik returned from a 38-game absence and the Wild beat seventh-place Edmonton 3-0.
Gaborik has missed 65 games this season because of groin and hip problems, but despite missing their best scorer for so long the Wild have stayed in the thick of the crowded Western Conference race. They've also, however, been unable to put together any winning streaks or sustained stretch of consistent play. The Wild haven't won more than two games in a row since the middle of November.
Top defenseman Brent Burns has also been out for the past two weeks with post-concussion symptoms and has not yet been cleared to return. Rugged left winger Andrew Brunette is playing through a knee injury.
No excuses, though.
"That's part of hockey," Brunette said. "Every team goes through it. You've got to find a way."