Avalanche’s MacKinnon ready to break series vs. Coyotes wide open

Andre Burakovsky scored late in the third period as the Colorado Avalanche defeated the Arizona Coyotes with a 3-2 win and took a 2-0 series lead.

Nathan MacKinnon was buzzing, which is generally bad news for opponents.

The Colorado Avalanche centre — and Hart Trophy finalist (or front-runner, depending on your point of view) — was riding a four-game point streak going into Friday’s afternoon affair with the Arizona Coyotes.

But after not recording a single shot on goal in the series opener, MacKinnon fully understood that more would be required of him.

That comes with the territory when you’re the offensive engine, even if this Avalanche group is immensely proud of the strides the depth pieces are making in terms of their contributions throughout the lineup.

So when MacKinnon buried a perfect shot off the post and in just over three minutes into the contest, you got the feeling he might be ready to break this series wide open.

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MacKinnon was seemingly everywhere in this game, his explosive legs chugging in each of the three zones, creating a plethora of scoring chances for both himself and his linemates.

In what was a back-and-forth affair, MacKinnon was the guy with his name all over the marquee — even if it was Andre Burakovsky who delivered the game-winning goal with 2:53 to go in regulation time as the Avalanche took a 2-0 advantage in this best-of-seven series with a 3-2 victory.

“What you saw in the third period, really the whole game, Nate was our best forward,” said Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar, who double-shifted MacKinnon after Vladislav Namestnikov left the game with an injury late in the second period. “Just engaged physically. His execution was pretty good. He was dangerous a lot. He defended and did the right things on the defensive side of the puck.

“It was a pretty easy decision to double him up and keep the other lines the same. Going into a back-to-back, I didn’t want to overtax everyone, but (MacKinnon) is a guy that can handle the extra minutes.”

He most certainly can — and there’s a good reason for that.

“I feel good — that’s why I win fitness testing every year,” quipped MacKinnon, when asked specifically about the quick turnaround. “No, I like to play a lot. I’ve got all afternoon to recover and I’ll be buzzing (Saturday).”

This will be a quick turnaround for both clubs, as Game 3 is set for Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m. MT in Edmonton.

Bednar wasn’t about to speculate about Saturday’s lineup, though he listed Namestnikov officially as day-to-day.

It was a much-improved effort from the Coyotes, who were sluggish and managed only 14 shots on goal in the series opener.

Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet challenged his charges to be better and his group answered the call, battling back from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits on goals from Clayton Keller (whose shot was accidentally poked into the net by Avalanche defenceman Sam Girard) and Michael Grabner (who rattled a chance off the crossbar on his previous shift).

There were ample opportunities to even the series, but now the Coyotes must shift their focus to avoid facing a 3-0 deficit.

“That’s more like it,” said Tocchet. “I’m proud of the way they played. They responded. We were in their faces. That’s more like the way we’ve got to play consistently. You’ve got to go down swinging and we were in the game. For the most part, we had chances to win that hockey game. We’re not backing off.

“It’s a roller coaster. This is the way it is. It’s playoff hockey and you see a lot of different things in playoff hockey. One thing is your attitude and your energy level has to be there the next (day). You have to have a short memory. Yeah, we’re disappointed, you want to win these type of games. You have to make sure you come back with the same energy and go right at them.”

Although five goals were scored, this was a classic goaltender’s duel between Coyotes netminder Darcy Kuemper and Avalanche puck stopper Philipp Grubauer.

It took near perfection to beat Kuemper — a beautiful shot from MacKinnon and a deft redirection from Tyson Jost, a late addition to the Avalanche lineup when Joonas Donskoi was deemed to be “unfit to play.”

After Erik Johnson got the puck back to the right point, Cale Makar unloaded a shot that was heading wide before Jost got his stick on it.

“It’s something we talked about before the game — getting in front of the goalie’s eyes and being a net-presence,” said Jost. “Me and Cale kind of made eye contact there and I presented my stick. I was hoping he would shoot for it there. That’s what great defencemen do and I was lucky to get a stick on it and redirect it in.”

As for the game-winner, there was essentially nothing Kuemper could do as a shot/pass from Avalanche centre Nazem Kadri caromed off the left skate of Coyotes defenceman Jakob Chychrun and right onto the tape of Burakovsky — who was left with a wide-open net to shoot the puck into.

“Sometimes you just get a bounce down on you and that’s what happened,” said Burakovsky. “I wasn’t fully prepared and I got lucky it went off the post and in.”

As for Grubauer, he has some experience on the playoff stage, having started the first two games of the Washington Capitals’ 2018 run to the Stanley Cup after supplanting Braden Holtby late in the regular season.

Holtby got the job back in Game 3 against the Columbus Blue Jackets and Grubauer finished the post-season in a supporting role, but he did earn a Stanley Cup ring for his efforts.

The Avalanche are one of the favourites in the Western Conference and it’s easy to see why.

This club is four lines deep and has an improved defence corps that features a nice blend of size and skill.

“A couple of years ago, if we had played like that, we would have lost 5-2 or 6-2,” said MacKinnon. “But we have such a good team, we can find a way. It’s such a fun team to be a part of. No one feels like they have to dominate, but we’re all trying to chip in. (General manager) Joe (Sakic) has done a great job of bringing guys in and making trades to make us such a deep team. We’re ready for hopefully, a long run and to do that, we need all four lines to be going and they were.”

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The biggest question mark for this group is whether or not the goaltending can get the job done over four rounds and it’s up to Grubauer to help alleviate those outside concerns.

Efforts like the ones he produced through the first two games of this series are going to go a long way toward laying the groundwork for a lengthy run.

“He’s a competitive guy, a proud guy,” said Bednar. “In the short time we’ve had him, we’ve seen him step up at big times. Last year, down the stretch there were people counting us out and he finds a way to help us win games. We’re seeing it here in the series. He got a lot more work here than in Game 1 and he made some huge saves for us.”

Grubauer isn’t the least bit concerned about the fact Kuemper is the guy getting most of the headlines in this match-up.

“That’s all white noise,” said Grubauer. “I worry about my game and worry about how I can help my team win. The rest is going to take care of (itself). You can’t control that. I’m not wasting energy on something that is written in the media or in the press. (Kuemper) is a really good goalie, but it doesn’t matter who is on the other side of the net.”

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