EDMONTON – A year ago, Nathan MacKinnon’s Halifax Mooseheads drove the Olympiques to the brink of elimination, winning 4-2 at the Robert Guertin Centre in Gatineau.
He didn’t know what his future would hold, or that the Colorado Avalanche were coming off their fifth straight defeat, a 3-1 loss to the Calgary Flames in front of a sparse crowd at the Pepsi Center.
How things change.
Leading all NHL rookies in goals (24), assists (38), points (62) and power-play goals (8) in 79 games this season, MacKinnon has come exactly as advertised. And when he inevitably wins the Calder Trophy later this spring, the product of Cole Harbour, N.S., will become the second player in three seasons to accept the award on behalf of the Mile High City.
Talk about a renaissance, both for the player and his new team.
With spectacular speed and the delicate touch of a meticulous marksman, MacKinnon is one of the most dangerous players on the ice at all times. At the age of 18, scorching a pace against the world’s best night after night, there’s little sense — or rush, for that matter — in defining a ceiling. Gabriel Landeskog, the NHL’s rookie of the year back in 2012, certainly isn’t prepared to. In his words, “the sky’s the limit.”
It’s fine conjecture for the rest of us, but if our most recent viewings are any indication, he’s right on the money.
"He was incredible out there," the Colorado captain said after a 4-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers. "It was one of those nights. With the chances he was getting, he could have had two or three goals. … Watching him now, after the season he’s had and the steps he’s taken as a hockey player, it’s awesome. We’re lucky to have him."
MacKinnon tallied a pair of assists, including one on Erik Johnson’s game-winner late in the opening period. The rookie had no goals on this night, but it was not for a lack of trying.
"Tough luck, I suppose. I hit a couple posts, but as a whole, our line was clicking and it was nice to contribute on a night like this," MacKinnon said.
The truth is, he’s been doing it all year.
Led by MacKinnon, Landeskog, Matt Duchene and Ryan O’Reilly, the Avalanche are headed back to the post-season after recording at least 51 wins (with three games to play), double what they were on pace to achieve had last year’s lockout-shortened campaign lasted a full 82 games.
MacKinnon is most thankful for the opportunity to compete for the sport’s ultimate prize above anything else in a season chock-full of individual success.
"It’s been an awesome year. Really, really awesome." MacKinnon said. "I’m extremely lucky to have come to a winning team early in my career. A lot of guys don’t get that luxury off the hop. It’s going to be good to get into the playoffs this year, get some experience and play for what we all came here for."
Continued success has helped MacKinnon turn the page on a forgettable night over the weekend. On Saturday in St. Louis, Blues captain David Backes accosted the franchise pivot, grappling him to the ice before delivering a series of punches in what can only be described as a one-sided affair.
Roughing penalties were assessed to both parties, while Backes was given the extra infraction — a minor for cross-checking — along with a 10-minute misconduct for his ill-witted malaise. After all was said and done, 122 minutes in penalties were assessed on 17 violations, including the nine misconducts doled out on the back of an ensuing late-game brawl.
For those keeping score at home, Backes has three inches and nearly 40 pounds on the Avalanche centre.
Colorado coach Patrick Roy referred to the scuffle as gutless, adding, "It shows what kind of leader [Backes] is, if you’re going to go after an 18-year-old." Firing back with a sprig of humility, Backes offered a mum dose of admission: "He’s entitled to his opinion. It’s OK."
MacKinnon, meanwhile, downplayed the incident, shrugging it off as a "learning experience" in advance of the playoffs.
"It was a weird situation," he said. "Honestly, I’ve moved on from it. Whether or not it’s in line with ‘The Code’ or whatever else, that’s not for me to say. All I know is that playoff hockey is tough and intense like that, so from that perspective, it’s prepared me well."
They’re focused, all right. From top to bottom, it’s been a season to remember in Colorado, but the work is far from over.
"Did St. Louis win tonight?" MacKinnon asked, ensuring he had all the updated information before offering his insight. In the sweaty stall to his left, Paul Stastny chimed in, delivering the good news: "They lost, 4-1. Ovi (Alex Ovechkin) got his 50th."
The Avs, riding a season-high, eight-game point streak (7-0-1), are now only two points back of the Central Division title.
"We’re close, we’re right there," MacKinnon said. "Regardless of our position (in the standings), we want home-ice advantage – but we’re after that No. 1 seed. We want it."
Just try and suggest otherwise.