On November 2, my commentary on a certain Avalanche 22-year-old center was headlined: “Why can’t Nathan MacKinnon do that every night?”
It included those quote marks, denoting that I wasn’t the only one asking that question, and that it was a common expression among those following him and his team, including when he had only 16 goals in his fourth NHL season in the Avalanche’s dreadful 2016-17.
The flashes — with the Avalanche and also in the World Cup and the World Championships — were just so tantalizing. And, yes, he was the NHL’s top overall draft choice in 2013. He wasn’t billed as generational, as were Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews since, but it still carried with it the expectation of at least stardom.
Well, since November 2, the answer is: MacKinnon pretty much has been doing it every game night. OK, or at least most nights. This season, he already has 13 goals — or only three fewer than he had all last season — and 22 assists.
This is the Nathan MacKinnon so many expected, wanted to see. He had five goals and 20 points in November and was the NHL’s No. 1 star of the month, and he scored both Colorado goals Thursday night in a 2-1 win over the Florida Panthers at the Pepsi Center. That came on a night when the Avalanche again suited up only 11 forwards and MacKinnon frequently double-shifted, especially in the first two periods, eventually logging 22 minutes of ice time.
He had cooled off a bit on the 2-2 road trip, getting only one goal and one assist, although his showy goal against the Penguins at Pittsburgh was waved off in a coach’s challenge because Colorado was ruled offside.
I asked him if he considered this an extension of his hot November and if he feels this is all a breakthrough for him.
“I don’t know,” he said, “I just think ‘even keel.’ It’s a cliche, but I went a couple of games without a point on that road trip and I just wanted to have some offense and stick with it and be aggressive and obviously it’s working. . . I’ve played 31 games. I think I have to do it for a while. We have 50 more and hopefully I can finish strong and we’ll see what happens at the end of the season. But I’m feeling good, though.”
The intrigue in any meeting with the Panthers — and the Avalanche now has beaten them twice in less than a week — involves Florida center Aleksander Barkov, who went right behind MacKinnon in that 2013 draft. Barkov even had his champions in the Avalanche scouting operation and it wouldn’t have been shocking if Colorado took him instead. Now, with each in the early stages of their fifth season, MacKinnon has 88 goals and 241 points, and Barkov — who scored the Panthers’ only goal Thursday — has 84 goals and 202 points.
I asked MacKinnon if he felt any rivalry with Barkov because of that draft and the inevitable comparisons.
“No,” MacKinnon replied. “I think Barkov is an awesome player. He’s so big and skilled and he’s definitely one of the best two-way guys in the league. Florida definitely didn’t go wrong with picking him and I hope the Avs don’t feel they went wrong with me, either. I think we’ve both found homes, here in Colorado and him in Florida. No rivalry, though. We only see him twice a year. Maybe if he were in the division, it’d be more. But he’s definitely developing into a good player.”
The win Thursday erased a bit of the stench of the 1-4 homestand that preceded Colorado’s 2-2 road trip.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “Bedsy (Jared Bednar) told us this morning that 12 of our next 15 games are at home, which is big.”
After a practice last week, I talked with MacKinnon about the coincidence of his big run mostly coming following Matt Duchene’s departure. He downplayed the connection then and he did it again when I once more brought it up Thursday.
“It’s definitely more responsibility,” MacKinnon said. “Dutchy was one of our best players and he did attract a lot of attention. Obviously, like I said, I was playing against the top D pairs of the other teams and matching up against top lines, so that’s not changing. It’s not like we (had) Sid (Sidney Crosby) and he got traded and now I got all the best players. It’s been like that for two years now. Honestly I don’t think it was that much, or at all, really. I’m here and I’m just playing.”
MacKinnon again saw Crosby, who also is from the Halifax, Nova Scotia area, at Pittsburgh earlier this week, both on Sunday and then as the Avalanche knocked off the Penguins 2-1 on Monday. MacKinnon and Crosby not only train together, they annually spent part of their offseasons taping commercials together for Tom Hortons.
“Me and Tyson went to his house for dinner.” MacKinnon said of Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie. “We hung out all day. We don’t see him much and we’re just good buddies, so it’s always good to see him. He cooked and he’s actually a good cook, so I guess you could say he picked up the grocery tab.”
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Denver-based journalist Terry Frei writes two commentaries a week about the Avalanche for Mile High Sports. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times, four times in Colorado (including for 2016) and three times in Oregon. He’s the author of seven books, including the fact-based novel “Olympic Affair” about Colorado’s Glenn Morris, the 1936 Olympic decathlon champion; and “Third Down and a War to Go,” about the 1942 football national champion Wisconsin Badgers and the players’ subsequent World War II heroism. His web site is terryfrei.com and his additional “On the Colorado Scene” commentaries are at terryfrei/oncolorado.
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