Tonight’s lead-in was going to gush over how Nathan MacKinnon is going to become a generational, gamebreaking talent in this league, but I quickly backspaced because – surprise, surprise – it’s already happened.
He was electric on a level few can match, all acceleration and power and deception and sheer force of will. After an opening ten minutes controlled by the Wild, he bulled past their entire team for a highlight-reel goal, stealing momentum that the Avalanche never relinquished. No matter who Mike Yeo threw out to contain him, he generated scoring chances like it was as simple as breathing. He was a force of nature, untouchable and transcendent. This was Nathan MacKinnon’s game, and the Wild were just playing in it.
Mike Yeo, after Game 1: “I think we can be more physical on [MacKinnon], there’s no question about that. You have to pick your spots because you can’t get running around, but at the same time, I don’t believe we made things hard enough on him physically last night.”
Irrespective of physicality, Minnesota had no answer for his line with Paul Stastny (4 points) and Gabriel Landeskog (2 goals). Yeo initially tried to match them against Mikko Koivu’s unit with Charlie Coyle and Zach Parise, but after the third (!) time MacKinnon walked around Koivu en route to creating a goal, actually broke up his top line to shelter Koivu from the Avs’ dominant trio. If that weren’t enough, it was the combined efforts of Koivu and Jonas Brodin that MacKinnon outmuscled to set up the empty netter.
Now Koivu is of Stastny’s ilk, with similar scoring, skill sets, and even salaries. He’s a great playmaker with a strong two-way game who plays and wins against tough opposition – certainly top-line centre material. Consider as well that Yeo leans heavily on his zonestart distributions - Cody McCormick and Stephane Veilleux drew 8 defensive faceoffs and none in the Avs’ zone. This allowed him to push Parise to 8:1 and Koivu and Coyle to 5:1 O/D draws. They were afforded every opportunity to succeed offensively, and they were still beaten all over the ice to an extent that Yeo surrendered the matchup and withdrew Koivu.
Mike Yeo, on how the Wild can rebound: “Part of it is being at home, getting matchups, we’ll be looking to get.“
I’m really not sure how Yeo can improve on his matchups. The Stastny line played primarily against 98-million-dollar men Parise and Suter, as well as Brodin. Ryan O’Reilly’s line outpossessed their opposition as well, so switching Koivu to him and conceding the MacKinnon matchup is a risky business in itself. Despite an unfortunate stretch of losing a good goal after nearly losing an eye, P-A Parenteau looks to be returning to form and bolstering the Avs’ offensive depth. And I genuinely think that MacKinnon undressing Jared Spurgeon on his first goal broke his confidence in addition to his ankles; tonight, the normally reliable Spurgeon was the Wild’s worst defenseman.
In the end, Patrick Roy didn’t need the last line change - he just counted on his players to beat whoever Yeo threw at them, with decisive success.
Dean Lombardi, on acquiring Marian Gaborik: “He has something we don’t have. We don’t need him to be ‘that guy’ every night but you’re going to have to win us a game here or there when we don’t have our game going. That’s what Chicago has done. Chicago can [struggle] and then [Patrick] Kane can just do something off the charts and they go home with the two points.”
We saw exactly what Lombardi described tonight – the Wild had outshot the Avalanche 10-2 and looked markedly superior when MacKinnon decided to take the game into his hands and didn’t look back. Roy correctly emphasized that it was a team win, but there’s no question that MacKinnon was the push that took them there.
Nathan MacKinnon is a special player. He has that gamebreaking quality, the talent to will a team to victory. Tonight was the spectacle that placed him on the national stage, but it’s only the beginning of his career. If he’s beating the likes of Parise and Suter at 18, you start to wonder just what he’ll accomplish over another two decades of hockey, how many more magical nights like this he has in store, the awards he’ll win and the records he’ll break and when he’ll inevitably kiss the Holiest of Grails.
That’s now 7 points in just 2 career NHL playoff games – historical numbers for his age – and we’ll get to watch him for many, many more.
It’s a great day for hockey.