Koivu's 500th point far short of what may have been for gifted Habs' centre

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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."

Other first-rounders from the 1993 draft year are well past his points totals, like Paul Kariya with 831 and Jason Arnott with 667, and have played 200 or more extra games, although Koivu spent two extra years in his native Finland and didn't join the Canadiens until 1995-96.

But this season, Koivu has one point per game - 15 goals and 24 assists in 39 contests - and is on pace to beat his career best totals from 2002-03, when he had 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.

"(Tuesday), they retired the jersey with Steve Yzerman's name on the back and I think Saku is in that line," said Carbonneau, issuing high praise indeed with a comparison to the retired Detroit star who was the NHL's sixth-leading scorer with 1,755 points in 22 seasons.

"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."

Notes - Centre Steve Begin is to miss a 10th game with a back injury. He was the only Canadien not to practice Wednesday at the Denis Savard Arena. . . . It is to be the second meeting this season with the Capitals. Montreal won 4-1 on Dec. 27 in Washington.