Nathan MacKinnon has become the player he always thought he’d be

Blake Comeau scored the winner and the Colorado Avalanche beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-2.

TORONTO – There was a time not so long ago when Nathan MacKinnon was the worst golfer on Sidney Crosby’s annual summer getaway.

Now? He’s giving strokes to Crosby, Tyson Barrie and Brayden Schenn when they tee it up together.

“He actually just started golf three years ago and he’s shooting in the 70’s already,” Schenn said last week. “He takes a lot of lessons and he’s dialled in. He’s good.”

This tells us a couple things about MacKinnon, some of which helps bring perspective to his breakout season on the ice for the surprising Colorado Avalanche.

He’s a highly driven athlete blessed with some natural physical gifts. He’s competitive. And when he puts his mind to a task, special things happen.

“I just think it’s a lot of mental [focus],” MacKinnon said Monday, when asked what was behind his offensive explosion. “The physical tools haven’t really changed. Hopefully I’ve gotten a little bit better every year. I feel like I’ve been sticking with the game longer – I don’t get down on myself as much, I trust my game more than I have in years past and I try to give my full attention to the 60 minutes of hockey.”

To see MacKinnon now, it’s difficult to believe he’s the same guy who showed up at last year’s all-star game in Los Angeles and quipped to reporters: “I bet you didn’t expect to see an Avalanche here.” At that point he was ashamed about how far the franchise had fallen, and believed he hadn’t really warranted an invite.

Later this week, he’ll arrive in Tampa for the all-star weekend owning a prominent place in the Hart Trophy discussion.

He certainly has the respect of his peers.

“He’s on an absolute tear,” Nazem Kadri said before Colorado’s 4-2 victory over Toronto on Monday night.

“He does everything so fast,” added Auston Matthews. “Stick-handles, skates. He’s so explosive. … He can make plays pretty much from anywhere, and he’s dangerous.”

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It’s little wonder why the Avalanche have gone from a 48-point laughingstock to a team with legitimate playoff aspirations. MacKinnon arrived Monday with eight goals and 11 assists during a nine-game winning streak and saw his team get a 10th straight victory at Air Canada Centre despite being held off the scoresheet.

Nights like this have been rare this season. MacKinnon torched the Leafs in Denver on Dec. 29 and saw extra attention from Kadri’s checking unit with Mike Babcock controlling the last line change on Monday.

“You’re on the road, you’re going to have to play against the matchup that the other coach wants for the most part,” said Avalanche coach Jared Bednar. “I thought the Komarov-Kadri-Marleau line did a nice job of kind of shutting those guys down. I think also that MacKinnon’s line got a little stubborn with the puck a little bit, and didn’t put it behind their ‘D’ and get after them as much as what I think they could of.

“There was a little bit too much east-west, so the plays got broken up with good sticks and good checking from Toronto.”

MacKinnon has become the player he’d always thought he would be.

He is still just 22, already playing his fifth year in the NHL, and now occupying the second spot in the scoring race behind Tampa’s Nikita Kucherov. He’s on pace to obliterate his career best and crack the 100-point barrier.

“Fifty points a year wasn’t really my goal,” said MacKinnon.

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All of Colorado’s losing really ate at him these last few years. He’d never truly played on a bad team until his second NHL season and had to start wondering if he’d ever be part of a good one again during the three years since.

That has given him a better appreciation for the meaningful games he’s now playing in what many consider to be the dog days of the season.

“Last year we would have given anything just to be in the mix at this point so we’re not going to take this lightly,” said MacKinnon.

They say you are the company you keep, and so we probably shouldn’t be surprised that MacKinnon has taken over as the alpha dog since Matt Duchene was traded earlier this season.

He spends plenty of time with the NHL’s best. He grew up in Cole Harbour, N.S., idolizing the town’s favourite son – there was even a Crosby poster on his bedroom wall – but now those two have become close friends.

They push each other through daily workouts in the summer, and MacKinnon says the lessons learned from Crosby have largely been observed rather than bestowed.

“He never gets comfortable,” said MacKinnon. “He’s always trying new things to get better and working so hard. It’s contagious. When a guy like that’s trying to get better every day then anybody can. He’s been doing it for 12, 13 years now – he’s been the best in the league for that long – and it’s really impressive.”

Just like his season.

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