TAMPA, Fla. – It took Nathan MacKinnon years to reach this place. And we’re not just talking about the Stanley Cup Final.
The Colorado Avalanche superstar is mired in a mini scoring drought, with zero goals and two assists through three Cup Final games against the Tampa Bay Lightning. He was held off the scoresheet entirely in Colorado’s 6-2 drubbing by the Lightning in Game 3.
The old MacKinnon would have cursed his lack of production, dangerously overcompensated and wound up hurting his team more. This MacKinnon has grown enough to recognize he can’t do it all and still purposefully strive to provide more offensive punch in Game 4 on Wednesday.
“Obviously I want to score goals, but I have to do my job out there,” MacKinnon said after Monday’s defeat. “[I have to] play really good defense, create for my linemates, forecheck, every little thing. Stay aggressive and shoot the puck. I feel like they will go in; I just have to trust myself. That’s all I can really do at this point. No time for doubt … have to find a few more lanes, but other than that, just stick with it. “
Colorado is counting on MacKinnon to find his way. And why wouldn’t it? MacKinnon has been no slouch in these playoffs, posting 11 goals and 20 points in 17 games with a plus-11 rating in nearly 21 minutes of ice time per game. He’s done it all without trying to carry Colorado on his own, a mindset shift coach Jared Bednar has repeatedly praised.
“He has a better understanding … that other guys play an important role in our team’s success,” Bednar said after Game 1. “It doesn’t have to always come back on him. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t. He knows he has to drive the bus, but he’s willing to help in other ways and he’s been really good. [at that] and helping guys around him be better players. “
MacKinnon has accomplished that while facing top-line matchups across the board. Bednar hasn’t shied away from putting MacKinnon’s unit – along with Gabriel Landeskog and Valeri Nichushkin – out against anyone, including Tampa Bay’s tough checking line centered by Anthony Cirelli.
Colorado easily had the better of Cirelli’s group on home ice. And early in Game 3, MacKinnon teed up Nichushkin for a goal called back following an offside challenge; had it stood, momentum might have played a factor in how the game unfolded.
The point – for Bednar anyway – is that MacKinnon has handled his assignments well. So even when the coach said after Game 3 that MacKinnon could have been “much better” that night, it wasn’t a commentary of his star’s overall contributions. Yes, the Avalanche’s best players need to be their best. It’s that doing so goes beyond just goals and assists.
“It’s a group of five on the ice,” Bednar said on Tuesday. “It simply came to our notice then [MacKinnon’s] not on the scoresheet in big numbers every night [with] lots of production, if you look at what his linemates are doing, what the defensemen on the ice are doing when he’s out there, they’re playing really well. I think they’re driving play. It’s a matter of time for him. I don’t think he’s squeezing it or anything right now. I think he’s playing his game. He’s confident and our team is confident that if he continues to do that he’ll be rewarded. “
MacKinnon won’t leave anything to chance, though. When Colorado held an optional practice Tuesday, MacKinnon was the first man on the ice. During the team’s 30-minute session, MacKinnon did some shooting work with JT Compher in a drill specific to the matchup. The setup had one guy hold his stick out while the other attempted a wrist shot on the net, simulating how well the Lightning’s skaters get their own sticks in shooting lanes and block shots.
Rather than feel defeated, MacKinnon is simply working to fix the problem. Tampa Bay has the fifth-highest blocks-per-60 minutes (16.97) of any playoff team this year, and are at 23.81 per 60 in the Cup Final (compared to 15.54 by the Avalanche). So, if circumventing that is the challenge at hand, MacKinnon is prepared to meet it.
“The last thing you want to do is get frustrated, especially if you’re getting opportunities,” Bednar said. “Eventually they come. You don’t have any choices as a player but to stick with it. You know you’re doing the right things. You’re creating chances, you’re helping your linemates create chances. You just have to stick with it and keep going. Eventually you’ll break through. “
Mikko Rantanen can relate to where MacKinnon is better than anyone. He led the Avalanche in regular-season scoring with 36 goals and 92 points, only to see his production stall at one goal (an empty-netter) through Colorado’s first 10 postseason games.
It was a less than ideal start that Rantanen turned around in a hurry, with four goals in four games of the Western Conference finals sweep of Edmonton, and he’s been buzzing ever since. Rantanen anticipates MacKinnon will make a similar turnaround.
“I don’t think I need to say that [anything], “Rantanen said.” He’s a good enough player. He knows what to do. He’s playing well and he’s creating chances for other guys, and he’s had some chances too in all of the three games. We’ve all been there. At this point in the year, you try to do everything to help the team win. He’s playing well. Everybody has just got to stay with it. “
Despite the poor result in Game 3, Colorado has an edge in the series with a chance to split this road trip in Game 4. That would mean going back to Denver and potentially hoisting the Cup on home ice in Game 5 on Friday.
It wouldn’t matter then how many goals MacKinnon did – or did not – score along the way. The ultimate goal requires a team effort.
“This is awesome. Good or bad, we’re not going to trade our spot with anyone,” MacKinnon said after Game 3. “We’ve waited a long time for this. We’re playing the best team, they’ve won back-to-back [Cups]. We knew they were too proud to go away. We still feel good. We feel good about our team, top to bottom. “