Nathan MacKinnon wants to fight and that’s the best news for the Avs
Nathan MacKinnon is sandpaper: rough but necessary to smooth things out, abrasive yet turns unfinished works to polished gems.
MacKinnon is the grittiest aspect of the Colorado Avalanche soul, it runs through his tormented veins. Right now, MacKinnon is a torrent of intensity that has turned around this season for the Avs.
It’s easy just to point out the stats, MacKinnon leads the team with 70 points and The NHL named him the second star of the week recently, noting his average of 1.52 points per game ranks second in the league only behind Connor McDavid of Edmonton.
But that’s just the norm for MacKinnon.
He collected a goal and an assist in Winnipeg Friday night, tying Milan Hejduk for fifth-most multipoint games in club history. Going into Saturday’s tilt with the Calgary Flames, MacKinnon had six straight multi-point games. That streak edned as MacKinnon only scored a goal yet was still named the first star of the game.
In a stretch of absurd scheduling the Avs just accomplished the impossible. The team had remarkably won 11 of 12 possible points in three back-to-back games capped by the 4-1 dismantling of the Flames.
In fact, the win against the Winnipeg Jets was so easily that head coach Jared Bednar pointed out that he had the luxury to roll all of his lines saving some legs for the next night. Buoyed by the emotional lift of another sell-out crowd saluting the return of Cup hero Nazem Kadri, the Avs rode the wave scoring two goals on the first two shots, the first coming from Mac, and never looked back winning the game 4-1.
But that’s not the real story.
Suddenly, the Avalanche are a serious team worthy of defending Lord Stanley.
While most Avs fans have said, “Wait until they get healthy,” that cliche hasn’t really been true.
The Avs have been missing key pieces to the puzzle all year. Over this recent stretch, they have played without all-world defenseman Cale Makar as he works to return from two concussions in 11 days. They continue to persevere without their captain Gabriel Landeskog who is getting closer and closer to a return, but no definitive timetable has been set. While, an important addition may happen at this week’s trade deadline, don’t expect a bombshell. Jonathan Toews isn’t being dealt. Ryan O’Reilly is now a Maple Leat and Patrick Kane is reportedly looking to buy a penthouse in Manhattan to play for the Rangers. Likely, the Avs will keep adding depth pieces and hope the return of Landy is their true major acquisition.
Despite still being no healthier than they’ve really been all year, how have the Avs skyrocketed in the standings winning five in a row and now sit second in the central three points behind Dallas with two games in hand?
Simple. Nathan MacKinnon wanted to beat the crap out of Flames center Mikael Backlund.
Early in the third period of Saturday’s game, Denis Malgin, short in height, sturdy in nature, had just scored the best goal of his career. It was a MacKinnon-like virtuoso performance of dodge, dip, dive, duck and dangle, as Malgin took the puck at center-ice, floated through the Flames defense to roof the puck making the score 4-1.
This essentially ended the game. The warm feelings and video tribute to Kadri were in the past. Kurtis MacDermid and Milan Lucic had already had their fist-a-cuff dance. The Flames have been dropping games faster than poop through a goose.
There was nothing left. But Backlund decided it was the right time to bury MacKinnon into the boards.
Mark Mosier and Mark Rycroft were having a light-hearted conversation about Canadian math on the TV broadcast, as the tone of the game was far from the intense nature that it would soon become.
Mac, clearly displeased with what he viewed as a cheap shot, got his stick knocked out of his hands with his blade being snapped off. He briefly bent over seemingly holding his wrist and then it was unleashed. Forget about the stick! He didn’t need it to grab Backlund in the chest with both hands. Backlund struggled and freed himself trying to break away. MacKinnon wasn’t having it and again grabbed him demanding he answer. Again, Backlund wormed away from the confrontation. A third effort by Mac to engage Backlund resulted in penalty called on Nate the Great.
Backlund sheepishly shrugged his shoulders at his own bench as if to say, “What the hell was I supposed to do?”
“Wow, you don’t see MacKinnon that hungry to go that often,” Mark Rycroft said on the broadcast.
What would follow was a series of hits, fights and scrappiness that hasn’t really been seen all year with the Avs. They got over on the Flames on the scoreboard and in the most important intangible department of hockey—intensity.
After the game, hunched over at his locker, looking like he would rather eat a plate of carbs rather than talk to reporters, MacKinnon downplayed the incident.
Asked if he was more upset with the hit or Backlund’s refusal to fight, “I’m not sure, ” MacKinnon mumbled looking for the closest escape route out of the conversation.
Josh Manson acknowledged that the team knew what they were getting into that night, “You know coming into the game I kind of felt like it was going to be like that. Everybody is looking at the standings every day. We knew how important those points were.”
“It’s a ramped-up effort from our team. I thought the team was really fantastic this weekend,” Bednar spoke on what it took to win. “Two really solid complete games. It’s that commitment and buy in you need to win at this point.”
The truth is the wild spirit of MacKinnon fuels the Avs engine. Last spring, MacKinnon threw hands with Minnesota Wild’s Matt Dumba. It was feared he would miss weeks with a hand injury. Losing MacKinnon for something as foolish as an unnecessary fight brought severe criticism. He was far too important then and now to any hope of championship success. At the time, Bednar defended Mac by saying while you don’t want your best player to put himself in jeopardy, you lose too much if you try to harness that energy.
A hockey player like MacKinnon can’t be held down. He shouldn’t be held down. In fact, it’s just the opposite.
Knowing Mac had lost his mind for a brief period of time towards Backlund is likely a turning point in the season where it’s not about injuries and certainly not about excuses. The time is right now, and the lynchpin is the untethered nature of MacKinnon.
Hey, if you want to win, if you want to truly win, it may get grimy, it will certainly look rough around the edges. But an unhinged MacKinnon is sandpaper and he’s about to rub the rest of the NHL raw.