DENVER – The Colorado Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon is 18, a future superstar who has used blinding speed and a lethal shot to roast the Wild.
The Wild’s Zach Parise is 29, a heart-and-soul energizer who has used hustle, determination and grit to roast the Avalanche.
Both big-game players are tied for the NHL’s playoff scoring lead with 10 points as their teams meet in the decisive Game 7 Wednesday night at Pepsi Center.
MacKinnon has one four-point game and two three-point games, including a Game 5 overtime winner. Parise is riding a career-best six-game point streak and is coming off a career-high and Wild-record four points in Monday’s Game 6 victory.
“The best players, they show up when it matters the most,” Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog said.
If the Wild wants to advance past the first round for the first time since 2003, shutting down MacKinnon would be a good starting point. Same goes for the Avalanche when it comes to stopping Parise.
Win, you move on to face the Chicago Blackhawks. Lose, your season is over.
“The aura of a Game 7 is pretty special,” said Parise, who will play in his third. “I’m looking forward to it a lot. They’re exciting games to play in, they’re exciting to watch. Just the magnitude of everything bring on the line, it’s fun to be a part of.”
MacKinnon has killed the Wild in Denver. In three home games (all Colorado victories), MacKinnon has two goals and eight assists, 10 shots and is plus-7. In three road games (all Colorado losses), MacKinnon had no points, four shots and was minus-2.
“Every time he gets the puck, he’s explosive,” said Wild defenseman Ryan Suter, who has shared the ice with MacKinnon during 92 percent of the rookie’s road shifts and 72 percent of his home shifts. “He tries to make plays. That’s the difference.
“There’s a lot of guys when they get the puck, if they don’t have anything, they’ll move it or put it in. But he always seems like he’s trying to beat you.”
Getting it done
Speed is MacKinnon’s biggest weapon. The Wild did a better job in Game 5 than in Games 1 and 2 bottling him up. But during three lapses — a 4-on-4, a late rush with Colorado’s net empty and one fatal shift in overtime — MacKinnon made the Wild pay.
“I’ll use the word mojo right now,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said. “He’s got a little bit of that going, especially at home. He seems to be a guy that’s going to go out there and attack and wants to make a difference. And he’s obviously feeling very confident. He’s got electrifying speed and obviously a very high skill level to go along with it.”
Parise has the confidence thing going, too, and he also has the desire to be the game breaker for the Wild. What separates Parise from other great forwards is his tenacity, the way he goes after the puck and his total willingness to battle in front of the net and along the walls.
“There are guys that are more skilled players around the league, but this is a guy that finds a way to get it done because he’s the ultra-competitor,” Yeo said. “You can set your watch by it with the way that he’s going to come to the rink and the preparation that he puts in to make sure that he’s able to go out and compete and battle and work like that. To me, it’s all about will.”
They were warned
The Avalanche was reminded Monday how much it better pay attention to Parise. He scored two goals and two assists for the second time this season.
The previous occasion? Jan. 30 in Denver.
“In that [Game 6] situation, your best player is going to be your best player,” Avs forward Ryan O’Reilly said. “He played phenomenal last game. He’s a great player, he skates well, he’s got an unbelievable stick and he works hard. He’s one of those guys that we have to be aware of when he’s on the ice at all times coming into Game 7.
“We have to make sure that he can’t get any momentum. We have to keep him down.”
Six games into this series, the Wild seems the deeper team. At even-strength, the Avs have not gotten a single point, let alone goal, from a forward on their bottom two lines.
That’s why shutting down Colorado’s first two lines will be critical Wednesday. The Avalanche got another threat, regular-season leading scorer Matt Duchene, back in Game 6. The Wild has discovered in all three road games how the skilled Avalanche can suddenly strike even when Minnesota has control of the game.
“It’s a very skilled group and they’ve played very well at home,” Yeo said. “We’ve had moments of all parts of three [road] games that have felt the way we wanted them to feel. So our challenge is to try to turn that into more of a 60-minute effort. If we can do that, then we give ourselves a great chance.”