The Avs pulled off a thrilling win in Game 1 of their series with Minnesota last night, scoring the tying goal with 13 seconds left and winning it 7:27 into overtime. Neither could have happened without rookie Nathan MacKinnon, playing his first big-boy playoff hockey with the coolness of someone twice his age.
All credit to Paul Stastny for scoring both on bad angles, and to Tyson Barrie for making the winner happen by keeping the puck in the zone and drawing two defensemen. But if we're going to dwell on someone, it's going to be Calder favorite MacKinnon—just 18 years old. We knew he could play—the first overall pick tallied 24 goals and 39 assists in the regular season. Now we know he can play under pressure.
Here's the tying goal. When the video starts, MacKinnon's already set up behind the net. Though time is desperately running out, he doesn't panic or hurry once he takes the puck, trying one side of the net, then the other, looking for an outlet. Taking the bait, Wild defense contracts in front of the goalmouth, freeing up Erik Johnson just above and outside the faceoff spot. MacKinnon finds him, Johnson's shot reaches Ilya Bryzgalov (screened by two Wild players), and Stastny pots home the rebound.
It's hard to overemphasize how impressive it was for MacKinnon to hold the puck as long as he did. With seconds ticking away, and both avenues for a pass in front of the net blocked off, MacKinnon collected himself, made a couple of feints, and found the man on the ice with the single best shooting lane. That sort of calm takes stones of a size 18-year-olds aren't supposed to have yet.
Here's the winner. After Barrie does yeoman's work keeping the attack alive, MacKinnon again takes the puck behind the goal line. On this one, there's no time to play ice general, but his instincts did the work. He dekes his way away from Jonas Brodin, skates back to the other side, and quickly threads a pass under the stick of Marco Scandella. That leaves Stastny all alone from 10 feet away, and that's how games end.
MacKinnon's wing play was all the more remarkable for the fact that he started off the night at center. With injuries to Matt Duchene and John Mitchell, coach Patrick Roy moved MacKinnon to anchor the Avs' top line. He set up Ryan O'Reilly for a goal early in the second, but by the end of that period Colorado was down 4-2. So Roy shuffled his lines, swapping MacKinnon out for Jamie McGinn. That worked quickly, with McGinn cleaning up a rebound of an O'Reilly shot to halve the lead. But it was putting MacKinnon with Paul Stastny—and putting him back on the wing—that paid the biggest dividends.
MacKinnon's celebrated for his speed, his pinpoint passing, and for his vision and awareness—all traits that serve him best along the boards, where he can keep everything in his field of vision and take advantage of an opportunity in the millisecond it presents itself. These two goals were perfect examples.
MacKinnon came to Colorado with a big-game reputation from his CHL days, scoring 61 points in 34 playoff games over the last two seasons.
"I've only been in playoffs in junior, but obviously it was pretty successful," MacKinnon said earlier this week. "The NHL is totally different, and I can't try to relate to it right now, but I'm looking forward to the new experience for sure."
He racked up a three-point night in his first NHL playoff game. Must have felt kind of familiar.