Nathan MacKinnon, evolved: Avalanche star showing his maturity, embracing playoff journey

Nathan MacKinnon had only known the losing end of the second round.

Last year he fired a slapper into the Vegas net as the clock ran out in Game 6 as if a hard shoot could explain the three goals needed to tie. The previous postseason, he stared blankly from the bench as the Dallas players celebrated their Game 7 overtime win. And in 2019, he walked through the handshake line and stopped to congratulate goaltender Martin Jones, who gave Colorado a one-goal loss in Game 7.

The Avalanche star didn’t want anything like this to happen again, especially knowing the talent in Colorado’s roster. So he did whatever it took to secure an Avalanche win in Game 5, completing a hat-trick with an all-time coast-to-coast goal on Wednesday. But it wasn’t enough as St. Louis scored a crucial goal in the last minute and won in overtime.

“Hopefully everything happens for a reason,” he said after that game. “We have to get this done.”

This is a man who hates losing. Even when he was in Shattuck-St. Mary’s, a Minnesota prep high school, he and his friend Danny Tirone would not speak for hours after contentious ping-pong fights, Tirone said the athlete. The two also hosted a knee hockey tournament at their dorm where they used their artistic skills to build a trophy, but when their team lost they had to leave the room to cool off. Late in an Avalanche loss in 2019, MacKinnon lost his composure on the bench, speared his green Gatorade water bottle and snapped at coach Jared Bednar.

26-year-old MacKinnon has matured into a more mature version of himself. His competitive spirit is still pervasive, but in recent years he’s channeled resources into nutrition, fitness and a sports psychologist. While obviously disappointed, after Game 5 he spoke in a more measured voice than in previous years. He was totally focused on the future, on what he and his teammates could still achieve.

And the Avalanche lived up to those words, returning in the third period on Friday to win 3-2 against the Blues and sent MacKinnon into his first Western Conference Finals. And while the star player didn’t dominate the stat sheet, his underlying numbers were excellent. The Avalanche had 81.65 percent of the expected five-five goal percentage with him on the ice in a Game 6 win via Natural Stat Trick and had 11 scoring chances while conceding just three.

Nathan MacKinnon gets a scoring chance while being shadowed by Ryan O’Reilly. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

“This is Playoff Nate,” Cale Makar said of MacKinnon’s performance in Game 5, but his words also applied to his teammate in Game 6. “We expect no less.”

MacKinnon went almost exclusively against Ryan O’Reilly in the second round. The Blues captain and former Avalanche player is one of the league’s top defensive forwards, winning the 2019 Conn Smythe and Selke trophies. And although MacKinnon’s point production against St. Louis was down on previous rounds, he still finished with seven points in the six-game streak.

O’Reilly and MacKinnon played each other five-on-five for more than 80 minutes in the series. The Blues had a goal advantage (4-3) during those minutes, but Colorado dominated possession and shots, helping to wear down the Blues’ goalies and defense. The Avalanche had 66.86 percent of expected five-a-side goals as MacKinnon and O’Reilly shared the ice, overtaking the Blues 43-22 and taking them 19-11 from the high-danger opportunity. MacKinnon said early in the series that “the best defense is good offense, patient offense,” and he delivered just that.

MacKinnon, the Avalanche player’s third-longest tenure, lived up to his reputation as the face of the franchise, showing he can dominate when the moment is at its most intense. He’s a No. 1 pick turned NHL superstar, and now he’ll be able to play on a bigger stage than he achieved in his first eight years.

“It means a lot to me,” he said after the Avalanche’s win over the Blues on Friday. “There have been some dark times. Nice to get over that hump, definitely.”

Real dark times. After a trip to the playoffs in 2013-14, his rookie year, MacKinnon didn’t make it back into the postseason until 2017-18. The three seasons in between was a dismal 2016-17 season that saw Colorado finish with a league-worst 48 points. The next closest team, Vancouver, had 69.

But the Avalanche made strides under Bednar, eventually becoming a threat to the Stanley Cup. They just couldn’t get over that pesky hump in the second round. The pressure peaked this year. Earlier in the season, between-bench reporter Emily Kaplan said during an ESPN program that a Vegas player yelled at the Colorado bench, “Get out of the second round, why don’t you?” Then general manager Joe Sakic left all in at the close, adding the likes of Artturi Lehkonen and Josh Manson.

“I know how badly our players want to[win],” Bednar said. “I’ve been with a lot of these guys for six years now and some of them have been here before me and I’ve had conversations with them. Even the new guys we brought in are trying to win, it’s tough. It’s really hard.”

Because of the difficulty in the playoffs, MacKinnon stressed enjoying the trip. He certainly did it late in the crucial Game 6 against St. Louis. He was the first player to raise his arms after Darren Helm shot the winner and quickly joined a crowd of celebrating teammates. And when the last horn sounded, he ran straight for Darcy Kuemper and jumped into his arms in front of the avalanche net.

“Soon there will be only four teams and of course the work is not finished yet but it’s a great achievement for us,” he said. “I thought we’d outperformed them for most of the series and definitely tonight. In the end we deserved a good jump there.”

Maybe it would have been sexier if MacKinnon’s highlight reel goal in Game 5 had proved a series winner. But MacKinnon is happiest when he wins, no matter how the win comes about. And that’s exactly what the Avalanche did.

Fast hits

• Helm has cited former Red Wings forward Darren McCarty as one of the players he emulated early in his career, and McCarty said after the game he “personally got chills because D. Helm is one of my kids”.

“At the end of the day, your stars have to be your stars, but your role players have to do their jobs and do something special in the moments they’re (may) be needed,” McCarty said in a text message the athlete. “Couldn’t be happier for the player and couldn’t happen to a better person.”

• Goalie Darcy Kuemper had a tough run against the Blues but found something to his game in Game 6 after allowing Justin Faulk a goal he should have had. He wasn’t perfect – Josh Manson saved him with a key block on Jordan Kyrou during a power play – but Kyrou couldn’t get a breakaway past him at one point and he didn’t allow a goal in the third period. He finished the streak with an .892 save percentage and needs to play better if Colorado is to become a championship team, but Game 6 marked a performance to build on.

Seeing more shots against a strong Edmonton offense might also help him find a rhythm. He spent a lot of time watching the Avalanche play in their own offensive zone and was only averaging 26.2 shots per game in Round 2.

“I’m not going to complain about the guys playing the whole game down there,” Kuemper said. “It sure is a bit of a challenge to stay sharp and ready for the next shot. I have great faith in the ability and talent of our group that if we play like this we will eventually score. I’m just trying to focus on not letting (the opponent) get another one.”

• Colorado plays the Oilers in the conference finals. It will be a high-quality duel with MacKinnon, Cale Makar, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog, Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Evander Kane.

• Manson’s father, Dave, is an assistant coach with the Oilers and the father texted his son before Game 6.

“He said, ‘Go win this game so I can visit my granddaughter,'” Manson said. “It’s number 1 on his list. He wants to come to Colorado so he can see my daughter, his granddaughter.”

• Veteran Avalanche forward Andrew Cogliano succinctly summed up his post-season philosophy.

“Feeling for yourself in the playoffs is death,” he said.

Cogliano helped form a strong fourth row with Helm and Logan O’Connor, and he was delighted after Helm’s win:

(Photo above: Jeff Curry / USA Today)

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