Frei: Obligations of stardom mean MacKinnon line has to lead this team down stretch

Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon (29) and Philadelphia Flyers center Sean Couturier (14) battle for the puck in the first period at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Nathan MacKinnon didn’t dodge it. In fact, he brought it up himself.

With a playoff spot at stake, the Avalanche’s MacKinnon-centered top line hasn’t gotten a point in the past three games — a 2-1 shootout win over Vegas at home, a 4-1 loss to the Golden Knights on the road and then a 2-1 loss Wednesday night to the Flyers at the Pepsi Center.

The Avalanche now has lost three of the last four and by the end of the night still was a point behind the Blues and the Ducks, who sat in the two wild-card spots in the Western Conference.

“We had a game in hand in some of the teams we’re chasing,” MacKinnon said. “And we didn’t take advantage of it.”

When you’re in the running for the Hart Trophy, as is MacKinnon; and you’re trying to help finish off an amazing regular-season recovery from a nightmarish 48-point season, as is the top line with Gabe Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen on MacKinnon’s wings, the mini-slumps can have monumental consequences.

Any small sample size is fair evaluation because of the relentless expectations. The line had 10 shots on goal against the Flyers, but Rantanen especially appeared lost at times, a rarity for him in his second full season with the Avalanche.

“We’ve got four goals in the last four games, and that’s not going to win us any hockey games, other than the one in the shootout,” MacKinnon told me. “The last three games, our line doesn’t have a point, and that’s pretty unusual.

“We’ve had a really, really good season. And we have a lot of chances tonight. Like the chance we had in the last seconds tonight. Nine times out of 10 Landy buries that one. That’s not an excuse. We’re a little right right now or whatever, but we just need to stick with it and hopefully get a bunch against Chicago (Friday).”

It was a bizarre night for the Avalanche in the sense that none of the three goaltenders listed on the roster in the press notes printed in the morning — Semyon Varlamov (ill),  Jonathan Bernier (infected hand) and  Spencer Martin — actually played.

With Varlamov stricken, Andrew Hammond got the call to come up from San Antonio, caught a flight out of Austin and played against the Flyers. Varlamov had played in 17 consecutive games. Martin suited up and backed up Hammond, best known for his stingy “Ham-burgular” stretch run with Ottawa in 2015.

Since his November inclusion in the Matt Duchene trade, more as a you-gotta-take-him than as a throw-in, Hammond has spent three stints with the Avalanche. He has been out with a concussion for much of March before going to San Antonio, and then finally played his first game for Colorado Wednesday night.

“It’s weird not having both your goalies …” MacKinnon began.

At that point, I laughed — and apologized for doing so.

“No, it is kind of funny,” MacKinnon said. “Game 77 and we don’t have either one of our goalies. That was strange. I hope it’s the last time it ever happens. It’s tough situation for Hammond. He played great and he only let in two, and we should win the game.”

I asked Avalanche coach Jared Bednar if the top line needed to step up.

“They’re working and creating chances,” he said. “It’s three games in a row and a little frustration is setting in. Landy had the empty net tap in there at the end, on 6-on-5, I mean they’re getting some chances. Tonight, it was just a matter of capitalizing on them.”

This shrunk the Avalanche safety net with five games remaining — three of them on the road.

The Avalanche most likely will need to win four of the five to be assured of a playoff spot.

Now, with the Nuggets on the verge of being ruled out of the NBA postseason, the possibility looms of a fourth consecutive spring without either of Kroenke Sports’ showcase Pepsi Center properties in the playoffs.

MacKinnon was a decent guard back home in Haifax, at one point hoping to play both high school basketball and major junior hockey at the same time. But that was ruled out, a pragmatic move considering the impossible-to-miss talent he showed on the ice.

Now he can help soften the blow for Kroenke Sports of the Nuggets missing the playoffs with an electric run down the stretch.

I still think the Avalanche will get there. But the road got tougher.

*   *   *

Terry Frei writes two commentaries a week 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 “March 1939: Before the Madness,” about the first NCAA basketball tournament and its champions; and “Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming,” about the landmark 1969 Texas-Arkansas football game and the events swirling around it. His web site is terryfrei.com and his additional “On the Colorado Scene” commentaries are at terryfrei/oncolorado. 

E-mail: [email protected]

Twitter: @tfrei

Terry Frei’s MHS Commentary/Story Archive:

An Avs’ playoff berth can be flashback 

Here come the Knights … now and maybe in postseason

Nathan MacKinnon’s MVP talk becoming more legit

Amid March Madness, how the NBA should emulate the NHL 

Nathan, good intentions, bad idea 

Fourteen years ago, Steve Moore played his final game for the Avalanche

Avalanche going into final month in control of own destiny

Is Duncan Siemens becoming more than an “organization” guy?

At least here, NHL trading deadline was much ado about very, very little

Avalanche standing pat wouldn’t be irresponsible inertia

If the NHL stays away again, USA Hockey should be all-collegians

Just your average Harvard guy from West Vancouver

As MacKinnon skates closer to return, Avs have stayed in the playoff hunt

Bowman Brothers Reunion with the Colorado Eagles in final season as Avs’ ECHL affiliate

The longer Bernier can hold the net, the better off the Avalanche will be

Magazine: Interview with DU local product — and Olympian — Troy Terry  

Magazine: Nordic Combined ace Bryan Fletcher beat childhood cancer 

Magazine: Arvada-raised Olympic snowboarder Chris Corning  

Magazine: Mikaela Shiffrin can add Olympic glory in amazing season

Magazine: Lindsey Vonn shooting to stay healthy, go for gold 

Magazine: Lakewood’s Nicole Hensley is USA’s backup goalie

Magazine: Gateway High Olympian Stephen Garbett

Don’t let MacKinnon injury knock the Avalanche off course

NHL, Avs heading back to work, not Olympics

A Tale of Avalanche All-Stars, past and present

All Aboard! Avalanche bandwagon gains momentum

A kid in Long Beach and his first stick

Jonathan Bernier on taking over the Avalanche net

Nathan MacKinnon doesn’t mind not being recognized … at the mall

Glory Days … Now get Springsteen out of your head

Sakic/Bednar and Elway/Joseph: Eerie parallels

Carl Soderberg goes from albatross to asset

Magazine: Jim Montgomery is Mile High Sports’ college coach of the year

Magazine: Will Butcher is Mile High Sports’ college athlete of the year 

Varlamov playing better than the numbers might indicate 

At the Christmas break, Avalanche is last — but still a turnaround story  

Tyson Barrie isn’t pictured, but he’s in the Avalanche picture 

On this (unnamed) line, Gabe Landeskog amps up the scoring

Avalanche rushing game involves Girard and Jost

And the Nathan MacKinnon answer is… 

Noted hockey pundit Yogi Berra would call this deja vu all over again

MacKinnon and O’Reilly meet again

Catching up with Jared Bednar

Gabe Landeskog has to be smarter, and he’s the first to say so

For Avalanche, winning back fans isn’t easy, either

Horseman/defenseman Erik Johnson up to playing marathon minutes

Ring of Famer Red Miller, Part One: Coal Miner’s son

Ring of Famer Red Miller, Part Two: About those %$#@ Raiders… 

This time a year ago, the wheels fell off 

Post-trade: On Girard and Kamenev

Matt Duchene heads to Ottawa

Stockholm is a Homecoming for Landeskog

Why Can’t MacKinnon do that every night?

And this Avalanche team is?

At the Pepsi Center, you’ll think you’re in Chicago

Is Zadorov ready to be – and stay – a top-pairing “D”?

For this is to work, Bernier has to be better

This isn’t just Jared Bednar’s second season. It’s his second chance.

Sven (The Reindeer) Andrighetto speedily skating into Avalanche forefront

With Avalanche off to another 3-1 start, leadership is a “core” issue

Magazine: Colorado Eagles’ class act in Northern Colorado

Magazine: Avalanche convinced a turnaround is possible

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