DENVER — Although he wasn’t all that interested in spending much time talking about the Mc vs. Mac series, it’s clear Nathan MacKinnon is fully embracing the opportunity to go head-to-head against the guy he himself has called the best player on the planet.
Through two games of this high-event hockey battle, MacKinnon is holding the edge — even if the raw numbers suggest they are tied at three points apiece.
MacKinnon has looked like a man on a mission so far, showcasing his explosive skating ability to generate offence, including an 11-shot — and 12-shot-attempt — showing in Thursday’s 4-0 victory for the Colorado Avalanche over the Edmonton Oilers.
MacKinnon’s goal — his 10th of the playoffs and 16th point in 12 games — came on a one-timer during a power play, but the strange wrinkle was that it came on a shift where Oilers goalie Mike Smith had lost his glove earlier in the play and he had his right hand behind his back to protect it as the shot snuck in on the blocker side.
There’s no shortage of effort being put forth by Oilers captain Connor McDavid and he still has the ability to make life uncomfortable for the opponent almost every time he touches the puck. But in Game 2, the Avalanche did an exceptional job of nullifying McDavid, limiting the playoff scoring leader (29 points in 14 games) to only two shots on goal.
MacKinnon’s line with Valeri Nichushkin and Gabriel Landeskog, with the defence pairing of Cale Makar and Devon Toews, continues to get the majority of the minutes against McDavid but since Leon Draisaitl spent much of the evening centring his own line, Avalanche coach Jared Bednar didn’t shy away from playing Nazem Kadri against the Oilers’ top unit at times.
Bednar went out of his way to mention that he didn’t think MacKinnon was getting enough credit for the job he’s been able to do without the puck through two games.
“I look at Nate and I see a guy that’s totally committed to winning,” said Bednar. “It doesn’t matter if he’s the guy getting on the scoresheet or not, he hasn’t cheated not one time in this series to date. Offensively, he’s getting on the right side of the puck. He’s still finding a way to contribute, but it’s a whole team effort. You don’t just check them with two guys. So all five guys on the ice have to be committed to that and everyone’s sort of bought into it.”
Draisaitl also had a nine-game point streak snapped and was limited to two shots on goal.
One of the important developments for the Avalanche is that they didn’t sit back during the third period after building a lead by exploding for three goals in a span of two minutes and four seconds, buckling down and not giving the Oilers any momentum going into Game 3, which is scheduled for Rogers Place on Saturday night (Sportsnet and SN NOW at 8 p.m. ET/ 6 p.m. MT).
“How do you pick?” Avalanche defenceman Josh Manson, who scored his second goal of the playoffs during that offensive eruption, asked rhetorically. “You need the three goals to win, right, and that stems from the good effort in the third to shut them down.
“I think that was what our group needed, the way to play in the third period there. We talked about it in between and how we wanted to accomplish it and so it was good to get out and get that result for us.”
Bednar promised there would be adjustments and his players made sure he was true to his word.
After Game 1 turned into a track meet that featured 14 goals and an abundance of high-danger chances for two high-octane teams, the Colorado Avalanche played a smothering style of defence to help make life relatively easy for Pavel Francouz as he was thrust into duty, making 24 saves to record his second playoff shutout in his 10th appearance — and seventh start.
It wasn’t a taxing evening for Francouz, but he was calm in his crease, not giving up any juicy rebounds while soaking the moment in.
At one point during a stoppage in play during the third period, Francouz clapped his hands together to show his appreciation while fans were chanting “Frankie, Frankie, Frankie.”
“It’s a special feeling, for sure. It’s tough to describe,” said Francouz. “It was a special night for sure. I think it was an overall team effort tonight. It was better when they were shouting, ‘Go, Avs, Go’ or ‘Let’s go Avs.'”
The status of Avalanche goalie Darcy Kuemper, who left Game 1 with an upper-body injury, remains mostly a mystery — other than Bednar saying he was day-to-day.
It is not known if Kuemper is going to travel with the team or remain back home in Denver as the series shifts to Alberta.
Bednar wasn’t even ready to declare Francouz the starter for Game 3, even after posting the goose egg.
“We’ll see,” said Bednar. “We’ll evaluate the game and we’ll talk to Darcy and Frankie and then we’ll make our decision.”
The odds suggest Francouz will be the guy between the pipes on Saturday night, no matter what Bednar is willing to say publicly.
As for the Avalanche, they seem to be clicking on all cylinders — and that includes an enormous contribution from the line of Kadri, Mikko Rantanen and Artturi Lehkonen.
Kadri continues to shine for the Avalanche assisting on all three goals in the second period, with Rantanen converting a perfect pass from Kadri and Lehkonen delivering a perfect redirection of a Kadri shot to go with the slapshot Manson scored on after Kadri got the puck over to him.
“We can see, he goes to the hard areas, too, he can make plays. He’s a playoff player,” Manson said of Kadri. “He’s not scared of the situation and even if it’s a tight game, he’s always making plays and is a really important player. We see he enjoys the little chirping and the hard game. Playoff player and a big player for us, also.”
Kadri has been outstanding all season long and he’s found a way to raise his level at the most important time of the season.
But instead of basking in the glory, he went out of his way to praise his teammates for the willingness to commit to the style of play required to win.
“I mean, it just goes to show you it’s definitely a confidence booster,” said Kadri, who is up to six goals and 18 points in 12 playoff games. “Knowing and understanding that inside the dressing room, no matter what the game, how the outcome of the game works out, we can play either way, we can score, we can defend. Just having that attention to detail, like I said, is what’s brought us success.
“Moving forward, it’s certainly going to be important.”