Not everyone may realize this, but their Montreal Canadiens careers overlapped for a little more than seven seasons – a period when Saku Koivu was the captain and Sheldon Souray provided a punishing physical presence on the blueline.
It was a time Koivu when went through his cancer scare, and Souray had all kinds of health problems, too, mostly relating to his endless wrist issues.
The Habs were competitive and twice advanced to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Now, however, as they near the end of their respective NHL careers, Koivu and Souray are unexpectedly sipping from whatever fountain of youth seems to permeate the waters in Southern California.
It isn’t just Teemu Selanne, 42, helping the Anaheim Ducks get off to a nobody-saw-this-coming 13-2-1 start (before Monday night’s game). It is also Koivu, 38, third on the team in scoring with 15 points in 16 games (ahead of such luminaries as Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan); and Souray, 36, posting a plus-13 rating as part of the team’s primary shutdown pair alongside François Beauchemin. Overall, Souray was tied for second in the NHL in plus-minus and Koivu, at plus-11, was tied for sixth, prior to Monday.
In short, the two old warhorses still have something to give: Koivu as the No. 3 centre in head coach Bruce Boudreau’s system; and Souray, still booming that slap shot and playing with a hard, physical edge.
“One thing about [Boudreau], he’s really smart with communication to the older players,” Koivu said, prior to Monday’s much-anticipated Battle of California match-up against the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings.
“When I talked to him before the season, he said: ‘I need you as fresh as I can get. The schedule’s going to be tough, so you’re going to have some days off. You’re not 20 any more. The recovery will take more time than you’re used to,’” Koivu said.
“I think we’ve been able to balance well between the practice and the games – and that’s working. But I think right now, our team is balanced well. [Daniel] Winnik’s been a big part of my line. He’s a bigger body, creates room by just going to the corners and the net,” Koivu said. “When you get a good start, you just feel comfortable. You don’t have to push things, or force them. It just comes naturally.”
Koivu is in his fourth season with the Ducks, after signing with them as a free agent in 2009. Souray played last year with the Dallas Stars and moved to Anaheim on a three-year, $11-million (U.S.) contract, which permits him to be closer to his family.
As far back as 2005, Souray says he and Koivu talked about how “if you have a little bit of an injury history, hopefully, we can make it up on the back ends of our careers.”
“Sak is a guy who’s so committed to the game. When we had the lockout this year, some days we’d have six guys at practice, some days we had 12 and some days we’d go to L.A. to combine our skates. But if we only had six guys out, you could count on Saku and Teemu being two of them,” Souray said.
“Those were two guys who were so dedicated and committed. When the coaches are drawing something up, they’re there paying attention. They’re not like the rest of us – grabbing a coffee or watching TV. So it’s not one of those things where you think, he’s getting lucky. He works for every piece of ice. He always has. He’s that little ‘Ball of Hate.’ Off the ice, he’s great. On the ice, don’t turn your back on him. Every bit of success he has, you’re not surprised at all.”
The Ducks and Kings each won a Stanley Cup in the seven years between lockouts, which makes their rivalry one of the better, if lesser-known, ones. Rivalries tend to ebb and flow and generally only really heat up when both teams are playing well and expectations rise accordingly. L.A. is heating up and the Ducks have been good from the get-go.
Souray says he’s been part of rivalries that were one-sided and thus not nearly as exciting or relevant.
“When I was in New Jersey, we were really good and the [New York] Rangers were … okay,” he said. “When I was in Montreal, Boston was really good and we were … okay. But when you have two teams that are good and there’s a certain amount of expectation on the organization and on the players, there’s just more at stake.
“You feel the losses a little more. The wins become more important. When you’re involved in a rivalry, or games that have so much meaning, it becomes more intense.”