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

Colorado Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar describes the growth and maturity increases in star forward Nathan MacKinnon's game that has made him into the player he is now.

DENVER — Not only is Nathan MacKinnon the driver of this bus, he’s the engine of the high-octane machine that is the Colorado Avalanche.

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

It’s as though something special is about to happen.

MacKinnon is the type of player who can bring fans out of their seats, with a skillset that is absolutely electric.

He darts in and out of traffic.

He shimmies and he shakes.

He dekes and he dazzles.

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

He’s got a heavy 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 generating them for himself.

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“I mean, what can I say that hasn’t already been said. He’s that driving force for us on a nightly basis,” said Avalanche captain Gabe Landeskog. “Every single night he’s that guy pushing the pace for us and being that offensive threat every single time he steps on the ice, and that opens up other guys. He just loves being the go-to guy, and I think that’s what makes him special. He is in that top one per cent in the league that could do that.

“There’s probably two or three other guys, maybe, that have that ability to change the momentum of the game every time he gets the puck. I’ve seen it time and time again, but you can even hear it, especially when I was hurt. It’s very obvious when you’re watching a game from up top that when he gets the puck, the whole (building), all 18,000 people start tensing up. So that’s a special ability to have, and he’s a leader for us and he’s grown a lot over the last handful of years. (He’s) a very special player.”

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

He often looks like he’s been shot out of a cannon and he’s incredibly difficult to knock off the puck.

“Nate’s like a bull in a china shop,” Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said prior to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. “He plays the power game. He’s kind of got that double-edged sword because he’s really fast and he’s really strong.

“So it’s hard to neutralize him when you really let him go. If he starts wheeling the legs and going, he can be really difficult (to contain).”

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A cursory look at the game sheet from the opening game of the Final might suggest the Lightning did a pretty good job of limiting MacKinnon’s impact, with him “limited” to a solitary assist.

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

With Game 2 of the Final set for Saturday night at Ball Arena, many are looking for MacKinnon to provide a memorable moment.

One like Mario Lemieux elegantly moving around Shawn Chambers and deking Jon Casey in Game 2 of the 1991 Final.

MacKinnon also provided a highlight-reel marker in Game 6 against the St. Louis Blues in the second round, an end-to-end beauty with a remarkable finish.

It was the type of awe-inspiring goal that made you press rewind, just to ensure what you witnessed actually happened.

Here’s the thing about MacKinnon.

The personal accolades and the eye-popping offensive numbers — including a team-leading 11 goals and 19 points (second on the team behind Cale Makar) in 15 games — are of little significance for the pride of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia.

Of course, he loves to produce on the offensive end and realizes 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.

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“Well, he wants to win. Since I got here, I’ve realized that that’s all he wants to do,” said Avalanche defenceman Josh Manson, one of the team’s key deadline additions. “He expects a lot of himself and he expects a lot out of his teammates. So he’s a good leader in that way. He pushes you to be better and he pushes you to drive yourself to win every game.”

Throughout the course of the playoffs, MacKinnon has usually had his game face on at the podium, win or lose and whether he’s the speaker or the one sitting beside the guy getting asked the question.

On the flip side, MacKinnon has frequently talked about enjoying the journey and has noted that dealing with some of the past disappointments helped him get to this seemingly happy place — even if the smile isn’t always prevalent.

The 26-year-old still puts a great deal of responsibility on himself, but he’s been around long enough to know he doesn’t have to shoulder the entire load.

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

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

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

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

“He’s almost on the ice every single day, one of the first guys, doing individual work or working with the boys,” said Makar. “It’s not always all about himself and individual work. He is always about working with somebody else, whether it’s teaching or giving little pointers. He’s so driven and motivated and that’s what makes him great.”

One of the topics surrounding MacKinnon going into his first Stanley Cup Final was about what winning his first ring would mean in terms of cementing his legacy.

This was a road MacKinnon had no interest wasting any time delving into, choosing instead to lean back into his singular focus.

History will record whatever it records and MacKinnon cares only about his actions in this series, not making waves with his words or making any bold declarations.

“Legacy for who? You guys,” MacKinnon asked rhetorically on media day, noting that he’d spoken to Crosby going into the Final but preferred to keep the details of the conversation private. “I don’t know. I’m just having fun day by day. doing the best I can for my team in the locker room. That’s all I’m thinking about.”

If the Avalanche are able to secure the three more victories required to complete the job, there is sure to come a time when MacKinnon lets his guard down and exhales.

That time has not yet arrived..

Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic dealt with similar questions about legacy during his own playing career before winning his first of two Stanley Cups in 1996 in what was his eighth NHL season.

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

“I know Nate absolutely wants to win. But I don’t think you need a ring to be recognized as a great player,” Sakic said on Monday after completing his obligations at the podium. “Nate is already one of the greats. But to win, you need to surround yourself with other very good players. Hockey will always be a team sport. There are several great players who have never won the Cup. They would give a lot to get a title. But that takes nothing away from them. When you are a good player, you are a good player.

“You can have a great career, but if you’re not with the right team at the right time, you won’t win. However, that doesn’t make you a less good player. It is true, however, that winning the Stanley Cup changes perceptions, for good or bad.”

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