For a generation that grew up on the immortal wisdom of Calvin & Hobbes, character was a thing built and most revealed in times when one was staring down the barrel of unenviable tasks. For Nathan MacKinnon and the Colorado Avalanche, finishing out the final few games of one of the worst seasons in modern NHL history certainly qualifies.
Instead of shrinking from the moment, MacKinnon, with the help of linemates Mikko Rantanen and trade deadline acquisition Sven Andrighetto, has taken it upon himself to close strong and continue working until the very end. Having registered six points in his last five games, MacKinnon has certainly been doing his part to end the losing and begin building confidence heading towards next season.
For the second consecutive game, Colorado's 21-year-old star center dazzled an opposing defense as he dipsy-doodle-dangled his way through a wall of St. Louis Blues defenders, getting a shot on net that was ultimately stopped but produced the juicy rebound teammate J.T. Compher potted for the game-tying goal at 11:49 of the second period. The Avalanche went on to win in a shootout with MacKinnon tallying Colorado's second shootout goal to seal the victory, sending a raucous Pepsi Center crowd into a frenzy.
"It hasn't been that loud all year, maybe since the home opener, for good reason," MacKinnon said of his team's beatdown fan base. "We've had some poor performances but it's tough not to enjoy it and have a smile on your face after a game like that. It was very loud. We played a great game."
On a night much-hyped rookie Tyson Jost was making his NHL debut and Compher was arguably Colorado's best two-way player, the future felt like it had arrived in Denver. MacKinnon made sure to remind everyone he's a big part of what happens here, both good and bad as evidenced by his struggles early and closing ability late.
The Blues jumped out on Colorado early, scoring first and building a 16-7 advantage in shots on goal through one and a half periods that would eventually turn into a 32-28 final advantage in favor of the Avalanche.
"We had a tough first," MacKinnon admitted. "Our line was really bad in the first period. For whatever reason, we were turning the puck over and not playing very good off the rush. In the second, we were good and everybody was good. I think after we got that power play goal from (J.T. Compher), we started buzzing. All four lines were awesome tonight."
Colorado's turnaround from the early game was nothing short of startling. They've consistently yielded strong starts to the opposition but rarely have they stormed back and made the plays necessary to win the game. MacKinnon's brilliance in the second period that led to Compher's goal was the second in two games after his dazzling one-man show of a goal against the Washington Capitals two nights ago.
"Yeah, I'm feeling good," MacKinnon said with a laugh. "I think ever since we put our line together we've been great. (Sven Andrighetto) has been lighting it up and (Mikko Rantanen) has been good. I'm just trying to drive the line best I can, being the centerman using my speed and kicking it out to those guys. I know I'm going to get it back, which is a nice feeling. I like to play a give-and-go game and that's what they like to do as well."
With that combination, Colorado has finally found the formula for a real top line, something the NHL's worst offense has struggled mightily to find all season. Together, they have taken turns in starring roles over the last two weeks for the Avalanche. The constant has been MacKinnon, either scoring or assisting on everything going right for Colorado recently.
After tonight, MacKinnon sits on 35 assists, just three shy of the career-high he set in his rookie season when he netted 38 largely playing wing alongside Paul Stastny. When informed he was approaching his personal NHL-best in assists, MacKinnon allowed a little surprise at his success despite feeling better overall about his game.
"A little bit. I feel like the goals aren't there. Everybody looks at goals but I feel like I'm moving the puck. I feel like this is my best year, honestly. The second half of the season I've been solid. Assists count, too. You play with good goal scorers and (Rantanen) is finishing, (Andrighetto) is finishing. That makes it easier for me but I feel like I can see more right now. Like I said, that give-and-go hockey makes it easy."
Not all of maturity is found in scoring and MacKinnon showed he's learned from past mistakes during the overtime period. Earlier this season, MacKinnon arguably cost the Avalanche a game in San Jose when he left the defensive zone to head to the bench after an exhausting shift and Matt Duchene was unable to get back and cover his man, who scored the overtime winner.
Tonight, MacKinnon faced a similar situation of having been on the ice for an extended period of time and when he corralled the puck nearing center ice, he recognized he was tired and allowed his linemates to change when he passed the puck back to goaltender Calvin Pickard and headed for the bench.
"In my second or third year, I would have dumped it in and gave it back to them," MacKinnon said of the decision. "The biggest thing in three-on-three is getting the puck and it's tough to get it back. You saw we had a hard time touching it and that was the only time I touched it. Picks is good with the puck as well and he was calling for it actually and I didn't want to dump it in so it was good by him."
When Pickard came up huge in the closing seconds of overtime to send the game into a shootout, MacKinnon prepared himself mentally. It was just Colorado's second shootout of the season but he understood there was still a book on his previous tendencies. When Duchene scored for the Avalanche and Pickard stopped the Blues' first two shooters, the game was on his stick and he was ready for the mind game between himself and Blues goaltender Jake Allen. MacKinnon made no mistake, beating Allen five-hole and securing the victory for Colorado.
"I've come down that side and gone high glove a lot over my career and I think I assumed he was guessing I was doing the same path and I just wanted to go quick snapper five-hole. I'm not sure if he went down or not but it hit his stick and went in. It was nice to win it."
With five games left in a disaster of a season, there's still time for MacKinnon to continue providing his imprint on this team and securing his place as the team's best player and part of its emotional center. From his impressive array of stickhandling abilities to showing off his hockey IQ in overtime and the shootout, tonight served as the latest example maybe Colorado's future is still pretty bright with #29 at the front of their attack.