The Wild found the perfect way to stop Nathan MacKinnon and the Colorado Avalanche’s high-flying top line.
Keep them hemmed in their own end and don’t let them have the puck.
Seriously, in what amounted to 60-plus minutes of keep-away, the Wild neutralized the Avalanche’s young guns by controlling the puck for long stretches of a 1-0 overtime victory Monday in Game 3 at Xcel Energy Center.
MacKinnon, the 18-year-old rookie sensation, treated the first two games of this playoff series like spring break. He had the time of his life. He was mostly invisible in Game 3 because the Wild refused to let him reach warp speed.
“It’s tough to play offense when the other team has the puck,” said winger Erik Haula, who drew the primary checking assignment on MacKinnon.
The Wild outhit, outshot, outhustled and out-everything’d the Avs in a game that was completely one-sided in every way except on the scoreboard.
The Wild more than doubled up the Avs in shots (46-22), which severely limited scoring opportunities for MacKinnon and his linemates, Paul Stastny and Gabriel Landeskog.
That line combined for seven goals and 17 points in the first two games. In Game 3, the trio managed only seven shots.
The discrepancy in puck possession time was so lopsided that MacKinnon jumped over the boards for only five shifts in the second period. And when he did go on the attack, the Wild choked off his rush lanes and suffocated him any time he came whistling through the neutral zone.
“He’s burned us enough this series,” Wild winger Zach Parise said. “We did a much better job shutting down his speed and not letting him pick it up with speed in the neutral zone.”
It took a group effort. MacKinnon managed two relatively harmless shots in the first period. In the second period, Jonas Brodin poked the puck away from MacKinnon as he generated speed on a rush. Matt Cooke clobbered him on a power play. And Mr. Reliable, Ryan Suter, stayed so snug to him that he probably knows what brand of deodorant MacKinnon wears.
The Wild made the night rough on the young star on both ends.
“We played our game,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said. “Our guys got back to it.”
Yeo tweaked his lines in search of the right formula to defend MacKinnon and Co. The Wild coach unveiled a new checking line of Haula, Matt Cooke and Justin Fontaine, who was a healthy scratch the first two games.
Haula is the Wild’s fastest skater, which made him a logical choice to track MacKinnon, the human blur.
“Hockey is not a race,” Haula noted. “It’s not like me and him are going toe-to-toe in a skating race.”
True, but MacKinnon skated circles around the Wild the first two games, so the Wild had to try something different. MacKinnon collected one goal and six assists in the first two games and basically turned the Wild’s defense inside out.
Yeo has resisted the idea of using one player to shadow MacKinnon wherever he goes on the ice. Yeo believes his defensive system and structure is equipped to limit a highly skilled offensive talent if executed collectively and properly.
“That line has a lot of speed, a lot of skill,” Haula said. “You’ve got to be aware when they’re on the ice.”
The Wild had to figure out a way to make MacKinnon uncomfortable and feel as restless as a kid in the back seat on a 12-hour road trip. He had it too easy in Denver, with the Wild giving him too much space to reach his top gear.
“You’ve just got to be on top of him,” Fontaine said. “You can’t let him kind of get loose and get his feet going. You’ve got to be in his face and have a stick kind of engaged on him.”
That sounds so obvious, but it’s tough to execute. The Wild found an even better strategy — control the puck, apply relentless pressure, just keep firing pucks at the goalie, limit the Avs’ chances.
That’s the best way to put the brakes on a guy with runaway speed.
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org