By the end of Saturday’s win in Game 2, they were running out of superlatives to describe the play of Colorado Avalanche rookie sensation Nathan MacKinnon.
Here was a player, controversially drafted by the Avalanche first overall in last year’s entry draft – so young that had MacKinnon’s birthday fallen 16 days later, he wouldn’t have even been eligible to play in the league until next season – lighting up the usually defensively sound Minnesota Wild for seven points in the first two NHL playoff games of his career.
Watch: MacKinnon sets up Landeskog for beauty
His scoring output matched an NHL record for rookie points in the first two games of an NHL playoff career. It had happened twice before – the one everybody remembers, back in 1919, Odie Cleghorn with the Montreal Canadiens, and then again in 1982 when Barry Pederson turned the trick with Boston.
MacKinnon was also just the third 18-year-old to score four points in a playoff game, joining Pierre Turgeon (1988) and Trevor Linden (1989), back when the league was an entirely different, freewheeling animal. The record for points by an 18-year-old in one playoff season is 13, set by Jaromir Jagr with the 1991 Pittsburgh Penguins, and if the Avalanche can get through the opening round, that seems destined to fall too.
The Avalanche selected MacKinnon in last year’s draft and notified their fans well ahead of time they planned to do so, fearing the possibility of a backlash. Coming off a decade coaching in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Patrick Roy had seen the impact MacKinnon could have on a game, up close and personal, many times over the two years MacKinnon played for the Halifax Mooseheads.
Few ever actually disputed the impact MacKinnon might eventually have in the NHL, but there was also a push for the Avs to fill an organizational need by drafting defenceman Seth Jones with that pick. Though Jones was born in Texas, he was raised in Denver, where his father, Popeye Jones, played basketball for the local NBA team.
Organizationally, the Avalanche already had a number of talented forwards (Matt Duchene, Ryan O’Reilly, Gabriel Landeskog).
Wouldn’t it make more sense to beef up their defence corps?
A year earlier, the Edmonton Oilers were faced with a similar dilemma and made the wrong pick – opting for the forward (Nail Yakupov) ahead of the defenceman (Ryan Murray, who went to Columbus and is already playing a key role with the Blue Jackets).
But Roy was given the unprecedented dual title of head coach and president of hockey operations when he was hired and so his opinion mattered. Roy voted for MacKinnon. Does he have an eye for talent or what?
What sets MacKinnon apart from other teenagers trying to crack the NHL is that he has both the mind and the body to play the game at the highest level. So while the Edmonton Oilers’ Ryan Nugent-Hopkins can be a creative force, and made it right away too, he still hasn’t thickened beyond that rail-thin frame.
MacKinnon is a solid physical mass, which is complemented by a lightning quick first-step and the creativity to make a smart play, rather than force things.
This is an oh-so-rare quality and it was probably most evident in the first game, a come-from-behind win over the Wild, when Roy had goalie Semyon Varlamov on the bench for a sixth attacker with about three minutes to go.
Time was running out on Colorado, Minnesota seemed poised to hang on for a regulation victory, but MacKinnon had the puck behind the net, Gretzky-like. He looked to his left, saw nothing but traffic. Instead of trying to thread a pass through the maze of legs and hope for the best, he shifted a step to his right, and saw Erik Johnson angling down from the point to create a passing lane.
MacKinnon went that way, Johnson got the puck on the net and ultimately Stastny converted the rebound for the tying goal. Paul Stastny won it for the Avs in overtime and then Colorado carried that momentum into their stunning Game 2 victory, in which the line combined for 10 scoring points and three highlight-reel goals.
One play in particular stood out – the third goal, the eventual winner, scored by Landeskog on a behind-the-back pass from Stastny – which wouldn’t have been possible had not MacKinnon taken Tyson Barrie’s head-manning pass between the legs, kicking the puck off the boards and to his stick, without missing a stride. Wild coach Mike Yeo complained afterward that his team hadn’t taken enough time and space away from the Avalanche, but this was an example of a player creating his own time and space with a skilled play that few could duplicate.