SAN JOSE – Just how great is Nate?
One week after he dominated a five-game series over the Calgary Flames, Nathan MacKinnon will get another chance to answer that question.
In the midst of playing perhaps the best hockey of his career, the 23-year-old Colorado Avalanche star will face a San Jose club still coming down from the shock, high and exhaustion of its first round war with Vegas.
Those who watched him pick up eight points against Calgary wonder if it was an inexperienced Flames club that allowed him to look so good, or if he’s simply taking the next step in a career that already includes a Hart Trophy nomination.
Or are the Avs that dangerous?
Flames players punctuated their loss by crediting MacKinnon for being everything from a “beast” who “took over the series,” to being called one of the game’s top three players alongside Connor McDavid and fellow Cole Harbour, N.S. product Sidney Crosby.
Few would argue against the notion he’s the best player left in these playoffs.
After running over the West’s best team, which included Norris frontrunner Mark Giordano, the 99-point man will try to keep his first extended playoff run going against the Sharks top duo of Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Norris finalist Brent Burns.
The Sharks pair allowed just one five-on-five goal against Vegas and will undoubtedly be focused on shutting down MacKinnon’s line with Gabriel Landeskog and Alex Kerfoot.
Those who haven’t followed the Avs might be surprised to learn that Mikko Rantanen, who led the NHL scoring race at Christmas, hasn’t played regularly on the top line for months.
Injury and the desire to spread the scoring around have Rantanen playing on the second line with Colin Wilson and Carl Soderberg, where he scored some of the five goals and nine points that has him atop the playoff scoring leaders still competing for the Cup.
Rantanen joins Landeskog and MacKinnon on the power play or when the eighth seed is in need of a goal, and in doing so completes a trio that has spent the last two years as one of the league’s top three lines.
They lead the charge on a surprisingly deep, fast and punishing team that looks poised to be a contender for the foreseeable future.
“For sure you have to ready for their top line,” Sharks centre Tomas Hertl told the San Jose Mercury News.
“MacKinnon is one of the best players in the NHL. That line, Rantanen, Landeskog, they almost owned the series. Young team, a lot of speed and we have to be ready.”
Sharks coach Pete DeBoer said Thursday being ready means ensuring his club can be as emotionally engaged as necessary to bounce back from three do-or-die contests that took plenty out of them, both physically and mentally.
Philipp Grubauer has been amongst the league’s hottest netminders since stealing the starting job from Semyon Varlamov during the last month of the season, which sets up an interesting dual with the suddenly-solid Martin Jones.
Considered to be the Sharks’ biggest liability most of the year, Jones turned a .838 save percentage through the first four games of their series against Vegas into a .946 rate to steal the last three games.
Stealing seems to be the appropriate word given the injustice involved in the Cody Eakin major penalty call that allowed the Sharks to score four power-play goals in the third period of Game 7 before winning in overtime.
Vegas GM George McPhee said the league reached out to apologize after the historic game.
“They made a mistake and I’m sure (the officials) feel bad about it,” he said.
“They want to get things right like we all do when we’re doing our jobs.”
In this case they didn’t, and the Sharks face Colorado because of it.
San Jose swept the three-game regular-season series, which included a meaningless game on the final night of the season that is one of just two regulation losses Colorado has suffered in its last 16 games.
Indeed, they were red-hot before having to sit for seven days, watching their next opponent go through the wringer.
Sharks captain Joe Pavelski, who suffered a head injury in the controversial play involving Eakin, was at the team’s practice facility Thursday but did not skate. He is not expected to play in Game 1 Friday at SAP Center as DeBoer said Thursday Pavelski was “still feeling the effects” of the hit.
Meanwhile, Colorado’s collegiate hotshot, Cale Makar, was taking in Denver Nuggets playoff action at the Pepsi Center where he drew a huge ovation when shown on the JumboTron wearing a straw cowboy hat.
Apropos, as the Hobey Baker winner who scored in his NHL debut in Game 3 is a Calgarian.
Avs forward Derick Brassard returned to practice this week after missing three games due to flu-like symptoms. Young defenceman Samuel Girard also returned to practice after missing three games, which opened the door for Makar’s highly-anticipated debut.
Joonas Donskoi skated Thursday but is questionable to play Friday following a Game 6 injury that kept him out of Game 7.