DENVER — A solid golfer, goal scorer and ambassador, few figured Nathan MacKinnon to be much of a baseball player.
However, midway through Thursday’s scoreless draw with San Jose, the breakthrough superstar batted home the most unlikely of game winners.
Standing net-side while Cale Makar and Mikko Rantanen worked some magic, MacKinnon swiped a rebound out of mid-air to score his third game winner in a series now tied 2-2.
“I cleaned up garbage — nothing really,” he shrugged, suggesting it was the type of goal his Cole Harbour, N.S. pal Sidney Crosby is more adept at. “That’s a Sid thing — that’s not me. That’s one of the first times I’ve ever done that, so it felt good.
“I don’t get a ton of those. I should probably go to the net more. They feel great. It felt better than any highlight-reel goal for sure.”
For those keeping tabs at home, MacKinnon has scored the game-winner in half his team’s six wins this spring. His 13 points have him tied atop the playoff scoring race with Rantanen, who was instrumental in the first two Avalanche goals in a 3-0 win over the Sharks.
It marked the eighth game in a row he’s recorded a point, matching playoff streaks by franchise legends Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic.
“Those guys have two Cups — that’s the goal,” said MacKinnon, pointing out the great relationship and respect he shares with Sakic, the team’s GM. “If we don’t ever win one, no one will really care about my eight-game point streak.”
Smiling, he added, “If I get a 20-goal point streak we’ll probably be in the final, so that’s the way to go.”
In a tight game several Avalanche players insisted earlier that day they hoped would be a 1-0 affair, MacKinnon had seven shots on goal and was, by far, the best skater on the ice.
Yet, he threw endless praise at rookie Makar for initiating the play leading to his goal.
Samuel Girard kept a bouncing puck in at the blue line and passed it to Makar, who fired it along the ice for Rantanen to redirect at Martin Jones in the high slot. Jones couldn’t corral the rebound, which went to MacKinnon for the momentum-shifting swipe.
“That’s all Cale,” said MacKinnon, who actually took two whacks at it to finish the play.
“On that play he didn’t stickhandle it, he looked really quickly and put it right on Mikko’s tape for a high tip. It could have gone in on its own. It was all him — I was just at the side of the net and banged it in.”
Colin Wilson gave the Avs some breathing room early in the third when he converted a brilliant Rantanen back pass on the power play from the side of the net.
Erik Johnson added a late empty-netter, sending the series back to San Jose Saturday.
“It can get scary when you’re all over them and you never score and you feel like if you let one in — ‘We’re screwed and we’ll never get one,’” said MacKinnon.
“We wanted to stick with it — we were prepared for a 0-0 game the whole way. It was almost do or die tonight — 3-1 is a tough deficit. Now it’s 2-2 and back to even. Now we need two of three. It would be awesome to win Game 5 and come back here.”
A raucous Pepsi Center crowd spent a good portion of the evening yelling “Grooo” as Phillip Grubauer was perfect on all 32 shots he faced from a dangerous Sharks team.
“We would have dug ourselves a huge hole if we would’ve lost that game, so it was a huge win,” said Grubauer, who had plenty of support from a team dedicated to blocking shots and playing tighter defence.
“Great job, unbelievable. The things we talked about, we executed. The game plan we talked about was key today.
“That’s how we need to play in the playoffs. You can’t just get loosey-goosey and think you’re going to win every game 5-0 or 5-2 or whatever. You have to grit it out. Huge blocks at the end, too, when they pulled the goalie. So that’s what we need.”
Rantanen’s pass behind him to Wilson while falling in the slot was a thing of beauty, earning him endless praise for another solid night.
“Nobody wants to go with a 3-1 deficit into San Jose,” said Rantanen, following a two-point night. “It’s a tough, tough place to play. So I think it’s a huge win. A good team effort, for sure.”
“We were talking, before the game a little bit, about playing for a 1-0 win, that we have to lock it down defensively. I think we did just that, and Grubauer was unreal again.”
As was the case in Round 1 when he took over the series against Calgary, MacKinnon’s speed and scoring have everyone talking about him…again.
“He’s one of those players, he steps up when it’s a big game,” said Rantanen.
“And it was a big game, probably the biggest of the year for us. And he was great.”
Although used to seeing MacKinnon score beauties, coach Jared Bednar relished his star’s latest tally.
“I love it, as a coach, because I don’t think you’re going to be out there dancing around and making a bunch of high-skill plays in traffic and score the highlight-reel goal that’s going tic-tac-toe and slide it over the line,” he smiled.
“I just don’t see that happening. You look at the goals that are scored in this series — guys are shooting, there’s scrums, traffic. Both of ours tonight were the exact same way, one on the power play and one five-on-five.
“The fact that we were willing to go to those hard areas and stick around, put our nose over the puck and punch something over the line, it’s good for us. I like it.”