Avalanche superstar Nathan MacKinnon was back to his explosive ways against the Winnipeg Jets

Feb 25, 2022; Denver, Colorado, USA; Winnipeg Jets defenseman Neal Pionk (4) and Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon (29) battle for the puck in the second period at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

More of the Nathan MacKinnon we saw on Friday against the Winnipeg Jets and less of the guy whose season has been mired with bad luck.

MacKinnon returned from his fourth injury or COVID absence of the season and was the explosive forward Avs faithful have admired since 2017. He scored two goals and had 14 of Colorado’s 42 shots. It was the MacKinnon of past years — the MacKinnon that was consistently a threat in the lineup nearly every night.

“Maybe the best game I’ve seen MacK play all year,” Avs coach Jared Bednar said of his top line centers performance on Friday. “Dangerous from start to finish.”

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After four consecutive seasons of being in the Hart Trophy conversation as league MVP, MacKinnon’s 2021-22 has been riddled with COVID, injuries and strange goal-scoring slumps. The lower-body injury that kept him out of Wednesday’s game in Detroit was the third time MacKinnon has missed time because of an injury this year.

On one hand, it’s terrifying to the rest of the league to see how well Colorado has fared without its superstar center. After all, the Avalanche are 12-2-1 without MacKinnon. But on the other hand, they will need MacKinnon to mimic his usual playoff prowess if they expect to make a deep run for the Stanley Cup.

The MacKinnon that showed up against Winnipeg was that guy.

Through 37 games this season, he has 14 goals and 36 assists. His nearly assist-per-game pace is far and away the best of his career.  It’s not that he’s been bad by any means. His 1.35 points per game are the exact same average he’s had the past two seasons. But what’s more interesting about his production is the lack of goals since 2021 and more importantly, the amount of time he’s missed.

Prior to the four-month COVID-19 pause in 2019-20, MacKinnon had 35 goals in just 69 regular-season games. Since then he has 34 in 85 games. He also has appeared in just 79 percent of games, missing 23 over the last season and a half. In his prior three seasons, MacKinnon missed just nine of a combined 234 games.

That in itself is concerning.

Given the salary cap implications on the horizon for general manager Joe Sakic this summer, this may be the best chance Colorado has to win it all with this core. But Bednar seems adamant to give MacKinnon the rest he needs, especially given Colorado’s current standing among the league.

The Avalanche are 12-points ahead of second place in the Central Division and are on pace to defend their Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s best regular-season team.

“We’re not trying to play injured players in the position that we’re at,” Bednar said.

In MacKinnon’s many absences, second-line center Nazem Kadri, who already has passed his career-high in points (66) has picked up a lot of the slack. He’s just one of many that are having strong offensive seasons.

Captain Gabriel Landeskog, who recorded his second hat trick of the season against Winnipeg on Friday, has 28 goals in just 44 games. His career-high (34 goals) were scored in 73 games three years ago. He’s well on his way to obliterating that record. Landeskog also passed Mikko Rantanen (26 goals in 48 games) to take over the team lead.

Other notable producers are defensemen Cale Makar (18 goals) and Devon Toews (nine goals) and forwards Valeri Nichushkin (14 goals) and Andre Burakovsky (15 goals).

But once the playoffs come around, it’s the big man. It’s the one they call Nate that will need to lead the charge. And it’s going to take a consistent finish to the season for him to get there.

As long as he continues to do what he did against Winnipeg, the dangerous Avalanche will suddenly be a far greater threat.

And MacKinnon will reclaim his status among the NHL’s best.

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Aarif Deen
 is our Colorado Avalanche beat reporter. He covers Avs games live from Ball Arena and attends practices, media availabilities and other events pertaining to the Avs on the daily beat. He is also a co-host of Hockey Mountain High: Your go-to Avalanche Podcast. Deen joined Mile High Sports upon completion of his bachelor’s degree in journalism and master’s in business administration from the University of Michigan – Dearborn. Before Mile High Sports, Deen worked for the Michigan Wolverines Athletics Department as the assistant sports information director.

Follow him on Twitter @runwriteAarif

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