Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon: Catch him if you can

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 21, 2014 - 11:17 AM

The well-grounded teenager is soaring in the playoff series against the Wild.

Nathan MacKinnon was in his bedroom — well, Jean-Sebastien Giguere’s basement, where the Colorado Avalanche teenager has been living all season — when the Avalanche backup goaltender and 2003 Conn Smythe Trophy winner called MacKinnon upstairs for dinner.

It was Wednesday night, one day before the Avs were set to open the Western Conference quarterfinals against the Wild, and Giguere and MacKinnon dined while watching Game 1 of the Pittsburgh-Columbus and Montreal-Tampa Bay series.

“We watched hockey and Giggy gave me some good advice, like keeping it simple early on … and patience,” MacKinnon said.

MacKinnon is only 18, so unsurprisingly, he doesn’t listen to elders. So far, Mac- Kinnon has been anything but patient, and the Wild sure wishes the kid would keep it simple.

MacKinnon, the Calder Trophy front-runner, has scorched the Wild in Games 1 and 2, scoring a goal, assisting on six, being plus-5 and taking seven shots. The seven points tie the record for most points in the first two playoff games of an NHL career.

As the first-round matchup switches to St. Paul on Monday night, MacKinnon is the biggest reason the Wild trails 2-0 in a series that is in danger of ending quickly if the team doesn’t figure out a way to neutralize “Nate The Great.”

“He’s got a mixed bag of tricks,” Giguere said of the budding superstar who already is one of the NHL’s most electrifying players. “Tremendous speed. Already one of the fastest players in the league. Tremendous vision and passing ability. Quick release, very accurate shot. Size. But most of all, he’s a competitor. Push him, he’s going to push back.”

MacKinnon proved that in Saturday’s 4-2 victory over Minnesota. He zipped through the Wild neutral zone like a bull charging past a matador en route to Colorado’s first three goals. He turned Jared Spurgeon inside-out on his way to his first career playoff goal, then sailed a beauty toward Ilya Bryzgalov’s blocker side. On Gabriel Landeskog’s two goals, MacKinnon backed the Wild off with his lightning-fast skating, then put pucks right on teammates’ sticks. And on Paul Stastny’s empty-net goal, MacKinnon outmuscled and dragged Jonas Brodin as if the defenseman weighed 50 pounds.

“I try to read what they’re doing to me — if they’re flushing me, coming at me at an angle, backing up or playing a trap,” MacKinnon said. “Sometimes you have to take it yourself and make a play.”

The Wild’s game plan against MacKinnon after he assisted on three goals in Thursday’s Game 1 victory was to play more “in-your-face hockey” against him in Game 2. But it’s hard to check somebody you can’t catch. He was hit hard once by Ryan Suter, and afterward, MacKinnon’s competitive drive emerged when he skated slowly back to the bench, slammed the door angrily and let loose a couple of expletives.

Like Giguere said, MacKinnon is a competitor.

“It’s been a treat having him around,” said Giguere, 18 years older than MacKinnon. “My [three boys] love him, and it’s been great talking about life in general. You know, he’s only 18. There’s a lot to learn. I try not to be his dad, but at the same time, I can’t help it some days.”

MacKinnon laughed.

“He definitely can be father-like, but that’s OK,” he said. “He’s taught me a lot. I’ve grown up a lot this year. I learned a lot, not just about hockey but about life. He’s been a big benefit for me, more than anybody can imagine. He’s been there for my ups and downs.”

The Avalanche finished 29th in the NHL last season but won the draft lottery. MacKinnon had just lifted Halifax to a Memorial Cup championship with 24 goals and 61 points in 34 playoff games, so he was a no-brainer first overall pick even though there was much debate as to whether the Avs should select Colorado product Seth Jones (who went to Nashville at No. 4) instead.

In his rookie season, Mac- Kinnon had 24 goals and 63 points and was plus-20 in 82 regular-season games. Before the series, many wondered how MacKinnon would handle his first NHL postseason, especially with No. 1 center Matt Duchene likely out for the series because of a knee injury.

In Game 1, MacKinnon skated on a line with Ryan O’Reilly and P.A. Parenteau. In Game 2, he skated with Stastny and Landeskog, and the trio combined for 10 points.

“I don’t think there’s a magic ingredient to the playoffs,” MacKinnon said (with a straight face) when asked about the pressure he felt coming into the series. “The biggest thing with pressure is it doesn’t actually exist. It’s something in your mind that builds up, and it can scare you. But I think it’s exciting that we have so many good players here and the load is shared.”

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