TAMPA, Fla. – On the ice, Nathan MacKinnon could always fly. But like Peter Pan, he refused to grow up. A hockey genius when admired from a safe distance. But up close and personal, the enfant terrible of the Colorado locker room could be extremely hard to live with.
“He’s still hard on himself and others. I think that’s part of what makes him so good, ”veteran Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson said Tuesday.
Like many wizards, MacKinnon can display zero tolerance for the human fallacies and failings of the muggles around him. Truth be known, his impatience can make MacKinnon a royal pain in the butt.
“He has that competitive fire. That doesn’t go away. If it went away and he wasn’t doing that, I would be worried about him. It’s something that makes him who he is, ”Johnson said. “Guys who are new to him need to learn to deal with it, because he can come off as a little rough. But when you know him, it’s just something that makes him tick. ”
From his explosion on the NHL scene as a teenager, skating around defensemen as if they were traffic cones, MacKinnon was a boy wonder on skates. But it’s also fair to say when the going got tough in the playoffs, Kid MacK tended to get frustrated, lost trust in less-talented teammates and got surly when pretty championship dreams fell apart.
After Colorado got rudely bounced from the playoffs by Las Vegas a year ago, MacKinnon snapped: “I’m going into my ninth year and I haven’t won (crap).”
Now, at age 26, when the Avalanche needs him most, is he finally man enough to lead Colorado teammates to the Stanley Cup?
The Magic 8-Ball says: Signs point to yes.
MacKinnon, however, is struggling to put the biscuit in the basket against Tampa Bay. He has two assists and no goals in three games versus the Lightning.
With goalie Darcy Kuemper having as much trouble finding the puck as a guy fumbling for the bathroom light switch in the pitch black of 3 o’clock in the morning, the Avs need somebody else to show them a path to the NHL championship.
All of a sudden, after a 6-2 thrashing by Tampa Bay in this best-of-seven series, the Stanley Cup Final is no longer a day at the beach for Colorado. With shaky goaltending, the Avs have never been more desperate for their perennial MVP candidate to be their best player.
Are you ready for your close-up, Mr. MacKinnon?
“We’re still in the driver’s seat, up 2-1 heading into Game 4. I think we’d’ve taken that before the series started,” MacKinnon said.
Something seems different about MacK. The guy he sees in the mirror might be a hair less prone to be triggered by anger. His sense of calm in the immediate aftermath of a frustrating loss was a healthy departure from past years.
“He always had all the physical abilities to be one of the best players in the league, which he is. Sometimes guys mature a little later on the mental side of it, and I think it just took him a couple years to put everything together, ”Johnson said. “Now that (MacKinnon) has, he has developed into a big-time leader for us vocally, (both) off the ice and on the ice. I’ve seen a ton of growth in him. I’m proud of him. I know he has put in a ton of work to make himself a better player and person. ”
MacKinnon’s production of 1,328 points per game during the playoffs throughout his brilliant career ranks him on the NHL’s all-time top 10 list, alongside hockey legends Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Mark Messier.
But when times got tough and bruised egos of teammates might’ve required a little babying?
Sorry, MacK doesn’t change diapers. Your mess is not his problem. He will never be warm and cuddly.
In his ninth NHL season, however, MacKinnon seems more willing to reveal his heart than curl his lip with a snarl. Captain Gabe Landeskog and coach Jared Bednar have helped him mature. But most of the credit goes to MacK, slowly learning how to prevent his white-hot competitive fire from burning down the house.
Amid the pressure of the Stanley Cup Final, only minutes after walking away from a humbling loss to Tampa Bay, I asked MacKinnon if he now copes better with playoff adversity and can let go of the gut-gnawing frustration that once ate him alive.
“Obviously, I want to score goals. But I want to do my job out there, play really good defense, create for my linemates and forecheck. Every little thing, ”replied MacKinnon, revealing a sense of peace he will bring to the remainder of this series:“ Stay aggressive and shoot the puck. I feel like they’ll go in. I just have to trust myself. That’s all I can really do at this point. ”
At winning time, what makes the difference between success and failure? It’s more than talent. It’s all the small things, just as a song you might have heard at Avalanche games suggests.
This is MacKinnon’s time. He has waited nearly a decade to be on hockey’s biggest stage.
We’re anxious to see if the terrible child is all grown up and ready for his close-up.
“No time for doubt,” MacKinnon said.