Avalanche’s young core built for success beyond this season

Nathan MacKinnon scored his sixth goal of the playoffs and the Colorado Avalanche defeated the San Jose Sharks in Game 4 to even their best-of-seven series.

DENVER – The rush of a crucial 3-0 win fueling his post-game excitement, Nathan MacKinnon was speaking almost as quickly as he skates.

With his game-winning goal the subject of the moment, he wanted to deflect praise to the new kid in town, Cale Makar.

"He’s got six points in seven games," started MacKinnon before being corrected.

"Oh sorry, five points? Oh, he sucks then."

Laughter ensued.

Less than three weeks into Makar’s arrival, an obvious comfort level has been established between the 20-year-old college sensation and the rest of the talented leaders of these Avs.

The group’s chemistry was perfectly illustrated midway through Game 4 when all five Avs skaters contributed significantly to MacKinnon’s goal. Those on the ice included captain Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen, Samuel Girard, Makar and MacKinnon, who will continue to be the nucleus of Joe Sakic’s Avalanche for many years to come.

The series-tying goal gave a delicious snapshot of what lies ahead for this talented young team.

The play started with Girard making a crafty keep-in at the blue line, using his skate to corral a hard pass before slapping the bouncing puck out of the air to fellow 20-year-old, Makar.

Makar one-timed the pass along the ice so Rantanen could redirect it from the high slot, hitting Sharks goalie Martin Jones in the mask.

As the puck dropped down, a net-side MacKinnon batted it out of the air, a la Sidney Crosby, before needing a second whack to finish the job.

No matter how this 2-2 series with San Jose ends, the future is bright for an Avalanche organization that has set itself up brilliantly for many years of playoff forays like this.

"That’s what’s nice, both (Makar) and G (Girard) are born in 1998, which is crazy," beamed MacKinnon, when asked about the ingredients of that five-man unit that will carry this team for years.

"Just (Makar’s) vision – he’s got everything. He might be the best skater on our team already. Just how mobile he is, his vision, his shot. He gets everything through.

"There’s only a few guys in the league that look for high-tips as a defencemen. (Brent) Burns and (Erik) Karlsson are two of them. And Cale seems like he’s the third.

"Tys (Tyson Barrie) looks for them too – he’s a really smart player and has really good vision.

"Seven games in, five points and no power play points – it’s impressive. Cale’s plus-(five), or something. He looks dominant out there, which is crazy."

They all do at times.

Few would argue against the notion the Avs top trio, when played together, makes up one of the top two lines in the league. They’re rivaled only by Boston’s Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak in terms of potency.

The addition of a Hobey Baker winner like Makar to a top pairing with the uber-talented Girard, gives the team another dimension.

Suddenly their blue line includes ultra dependable Erik Johnson and Ian Cole, Barrie and hit leader Nikita Zadorov. There’s also plenty of buzz around second-round pick Conor Timmins, 20, who missed the entire season due to a concussion he suffered in the 2018 OHL playoffs.

None of this is to mention the fact this team appears to have found its solution in net with Philipp Grubauer, who went 8-0-2 down the stretch to get the team into the playoffs with all-world play.

He’s been equally as stellar in the playoffs, going 6-3 with a .931 save percentage and 2.17 goals-against average.

The 27-year-old, who started the first two games of the playoffs last year for the Cup-winning Capitals, is signed for another two years.

"This team is so young, learning so much and has so much talent – it reminds me of how it was in Washington years ago when so many guys came up from the AHL," said Grubauer, the first German-born goaltender to record an NHL playoff shutout Thursday.

"We were two points out of last place at one point this year and just the urgency of coming back and fighting back it shows how hard this team is working together. I think they’re going to stay together and we’re going to make something fun here."

As fun as the core of Sakic, Milan Hejduk, Peter Forsberg, Rob Blake, Adam Foote and Patrick Roy made it here for so long?

Well, one step at a time.

Rantanen still needs to be signed with what will undoubtedly be one of the largest deals of the summer. The offensive depth needs bolstering too.

Neither should be much of an issue, as the Avs have $14 million in cap space and plenty of speedy, young forwards who can grow into more prominent roles.

Plus they hold the fourth-overall pick in June’s NHL Draft.

Yes, after several lean years, the future of the Avalanche has morphed significantly.

"After taking out Calgary we expect to win now, which is a completely different mindset," said Colin Wilson, whose club plays Game 5 in San Jose Saturday.

"This team really believes in itself."

As it should.

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