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Saku Koivu shoots for 500th point

Saku Koivu #11 of the Montreal Canadiens lines up in position to take the faceoff against the Tampa Bay Lightning during their NHL game at Bell Centre on January 2, 2007 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
Saku Koivu #11 of the Montreal Canadiens lines up in position to take the faceoff against the Tampa Bay Lightning during their NHL game at Bell Centre on January 2, 2007 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

With one more goal or assist, Saku Koivu will reach the 500-point milestone he surely should have passed long ago.

With his skill and battling attitude on the ice, who knows how many points the Montreal Canadiens captain might have piled up in his 11 NHL seasons had his career not been beset by injuries and a battle with a cancer?

Certainly a lot more than the 499 (152 goals and 347 assists in 608 games) he takes into a game Thursday night against the Capitals in Washington.

Not that Koivu loses any sleep over the 244 games he has lost to injury and illness in his career.

"That's all in the past," Koivu said Wednesday. "I want to set new goals.Whatever happened, happened. Now I'm enjoying hockey and my life and there's no reason to look back."

Koivu was drafted 21st overall in 1993 and has done comparatively well against that year's draft class considering the injuries and the fact he remained in Finland until 1995. Only two players chosen before Koivu have surpassed his point totals and both have appeared in an additional 200 games. Paul Kariya, with 831, and Jason Arnott, with 667, lead the group that included the highly-touted Alexandre Daigle. Other notables taken that year include Todd Bertuzzi and Montreal's selection at 151st,  Darcy Tucker.

This season, Koivu has been on a point-per-game pace — 15 goals and 24 assists in 39 contests — and is set to beat his career best totals from 2003: 21 goals and 71 points.

That is despite off-season surgery to repair a detached retina in his left eye from being clipped under the visor by Justin Williams stick during a playoff game against Carolina last spring. Koivu was left with a blind spot and a small cataract that is to be removed after the season. He said it hasn't interfered with his performance.

"It hasn't got better or worse, but now, when I lose the puck, I don't think about it," he said. "The cataract bothers me more than anything, but we can fix that after the season."

Koivu hasn't missed a game this season, and has been injury-free for most of the three seasons since his bout with cancer, which he credits mostly to better training methods.

It hasn't always been so.

He was leading the NHL in scoring in his sophomore season when he suffered his first major knee injury in December, 1996 and missed 32 games, ending the season with 56 points in 50 games.

Shoulder and knee injuries limited him to 24 games in 1999-2000, the year he was named captain. More injuries held him to only 54 games the following season, but the worst was still to come.

En route to training camp before the 2001-02 campaign, Koivu fell ill with what was later diagnosed as non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a type of cancer of the abdomen.

After a hellish season of treatment, Koivu returned for the final three regular season games and tied for the team lead in playoff scoring as he led Montreal into the second round. That earned him the Bill Masterton Trophy for perseverance, dedication and sportsmanship.

Now 32 and healthy, Koivu centres Montreal's top line and is scoring more than ever.

Coach Guy Carbonneau said his worth is judged by more than career point totals.

"He came through a lot with cancer and injuries, but he has a passion for the game, the city and the team and it shows in his play."

Along with his NHL achievements, Koivu has also shone in international play. He was captain of a Finnish team that won silver at the 2006 Winter Olympics, to go with bronze medals in 1994 and 1998. He also led Finland to gold at the 1995 world championships and silver at World Cups in 1996 and 2004.

Just as his injury in the playoffs sank any hopes an upset of the eventual Stanley Cup champion Hurricanes last spring, his presence has had much to do with the Canadiens' 23-11-5 start this season.

And later this month, he is to undergo his fifth annual test for cancer - the one that should show whether the disease has been beaten for good.

It will be taken on a CT/PET scan machine at Montreal General Hospital that he helped pay for by setting up the Saku Koivu Foundation in 2002, which raised $2.5 million toward its $8 million price tag.

Koivu seems as proud of that as he does of his 499 points, with one more to go to for that nice round 500.

"Sometimes you don't realize you're getting close to milestones," he said. "But I'd like to get it over with sooner rather than later.

"Hopefully, it will come Thursday night."


UPDATE: When 500 points is a big deal — Putting Saku Koivu's 500 points into the context of his tumultuous career