MacKinnon the ‘driving force’ in Avalanche’s charge for the Cup

DENVER — Nathan MacKinnon not only drives this bus, he also powers the high-octane machine, the Colorado Avalanche.

When the puck is on his stick and those explosive legs start spinning through the neutral zone and beyond, the anticipation builds to a crescendo.

It’s like something special is happening.

MacKinnon is the kind of player who can knock fans out of their seats with an absolutely electric skillset.

He darts in and out of traffic.

He flaps and he trembles.

He dekes and he blinds.

The shots on goal are frequent and the conversion rate is high.

He has a hard and accurate shot with a quick release, and he’s also a great distributor of the puck – creating opportunities for others when he’s not creating them for himself.

“I mean, what can I say that hasn’t already been said. He’s our driving force every night,” said avalanche captain Gabe Landeskog. “Every single night he’s the guy that sets the pace for us and every time he steps on the ice he’s that offensive threat and that opens up other guys. He just loves being the point of contact and I think that’s what makes him so special. He’s in the top 1 percent in the league who could do it.

“There are probably two or three other guys who have that ability to change the momentum of the game every time he gets the puck. I’ve seen it over and over again, but you can even hear it, especially when I’ve been hurt. It’s very obvious when you watch a game from above that when he gets the puck, the whole[building]all 18,000 people start cramping. So that’s a special ability and he’s a leader for us and he’s grown a lot in the last few years. (He is) a very special player.”

Part of what makes MacKinnon so special is the mix of speed and power.

He often looks like he was shot out of a cannon and is incredibly difficult to knock off the puck.

“Nate is like a bull in a china shop,” said Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper ahead of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals. “He’s playing the power game. He kind of has this double-edged sword because he’s really fast and really strong.

“So it’s hard to neutralize him when you really let him go. If he starts twisting his legs and walking, it can be really difficult to contain him.”

A cursory look at the finals’ opening game sheet might indicate that Lightning did a pretty good job of limiting MacKinnon’s influence, being “limited” to a lone support.

But if you dig even slightly below the surface, the picture tells a different story as he finished with five shots on target and 13 shot attempts.

With Game 2 of the final set for Saturday night at the Ball Arena, many are waiting for MacKinnon to create a moment to remember.

One like Mario Lemieux moving gracefully into Shawn Chambers and deking Jon Casey in Game 2 of the 1991 final.

MacKinnon also delivered a highlight reel marker in Game 6 against the St. Louis Blues in Round 2, an end-to-end beauty with a notable finish.

It was the kind of awe-inspiring goal that had you pressing rewind just to make sure what you witnessed actually happened.

Here’s the thing about MacKinnon.

Personal accolades and stunning offensive numbers — including 11 goals and 19 points as team leader (second on team behind Cale Makar) in 15 games — mean little to Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia pride.

Of course, he loves to produce on offense and recognizes that it’s part of his job.

But for lack of a better term, MacKinnon is in the Sidney Crosby zone, laser-focused and ready to take the next step.

“Well, he wants to win. Since I’ve been here, I’ve realized that’s all he wants to do,” said Avalanche defenseman Josh Manson, one of the team’s key Deadline additions. “He expects a lot from himself and he expects a lot from his teammates. So he’s a good leader in that regard. He pushes you to get better and he pushes you to push yourself to win every game.”

Over the course of the playoffs, MacKinnon has typically shown his game on the podium, winning or losing and whether he’s the speaker or the one sitting next to the guy being asked the question.

On the other hand, MacKinnon has spoken frequently about enjoying the journey, noting that dealing with some of the past disappointments has helped him get to this seemingly happy place — even if the smile isn’t always predominant.

The 26-year-old still carries a lot of responsibility, but he’s been around long enough to know he doesn’t have to shoulder the full burden.

The growth of his all-around game was also for all to see – and it culminated in incredibly difficult matchups against the Blues’ Ryan O’Reilly, the Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid and now the Lightning’s Anthony Cirelli.

“The maturity of his game over the past few seasons and what we went through in the playoffs last year has pushed him to a different point this year,” said Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar. “He has a better and growing understanding of everything that’s going on around him and that other guys play a vital role in our team’s success, and it doesn’t always have to just come back to him and be at peace with it.

“Again, I’ll repeat it as many times as you ask, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t put a lot of weight on his own shoulders. He does. That’s the kind of competitor he is. He knows he has to drive the bus, but he’s willing to help in other ways and he’s helped really well in other ways and helped the people around him become better players.”

That’s the thing about MacKinnon — he doesn’t have a huge ego, nor does he crave the limelight.

“He’s on the ice almost every day, one of the first guys, doing individual work or working with the guys,” Makar said. “It’s not always just about himself and the individual work. He’s always interested in collaborating with someone else, whether it’s teaching or giving little hints. He’s so driven and motivated and that makes him great.”

One of the themes surrounding MacKinnon ahead of his first Stanley Cup final was what winning his first ring would mean to cement his legacy.

This was a path MacKinnon didn’t want to waste time on, instead focusing on his unique focus.

History will record whatever it records, and in this series MacKinnon only cares about his actions without making waves with his words or making bold statements.

“Rebate for whom? Guys,” MacKinnon asked rhetorically on media day, noting that he had spoken to Crosby ahead of the finale but preferred to keep the details of the conversation private. “I don’t know. I’m just having fun every day. Doing my best for my team in the dressing room. That’s all I’m thinking about.”

If the Avalanche are able to pull off the three more victories required to complete the job, there will surely come a time when MacKinnon will let go of his vigilance and exhale.

That time hasn’t come yet…

Avalanche General Manager Joe Sakic grappled with similar legacy issues during his own playing career before winning his first of two Stanley Cups in his eighth NHL season in 1996.

For reference, MacKinnon is nearing the completion of his ninth campaign and his desire has never been questioned.

“I know that Nate really wants to win. But I don’t think you need a ring to be recognized as a great player,” Sakic said Monday after completing his duties on the podium. “Nate is already one of the greats. But to win you have to surround yourself with other very good players. Ice hockey will always be a team sport. There are several great players who have never won the cup. They would give anything to get a title. But that doesn’t take anything away from them. If you’re a good player, you’re a good player.

“You can have a great career, but if you’re not on the right team at the right time, you’re not going to win. However, that doesn’t make you a less good player. However, it is true that winning the Stanley Cup changes perceptions for better or for worse.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.