If you hear the dynamite going off in downtown Denver these days, don't be alarmed. It's not the sound of the Denver Broncos blowing up the embarrassment their roster has become but rather one-man demolition squad Nathan MacKinnon blowing up another team's gameplan to slow him down.
After a disappointing end to an otherwise positive road trip, the Colorado Avalanche returned home and beat the visiting Florida Panthers 2-1 on the back of their breakout superstar.
MacKinnon scored both of Colorado's goals, the second coming at 6:44 of the third period and proved to be the game-winner. It was his 13th goal of the season and his fourth game-winning goal of the season, matching last year's number in 51 fewer games played. He beat Florida's star defenseman Aaron Ekblad wide and cut hard to the net, getting the puck on goaltender James Reimer and it just slipped through, giving Colorado a lead they would hold.
"I'm just trying to put it on net," MacKinnon explained of his second goal. "It's too hard to think about [shooting high or low]. I had to kind of shake off his stick in my arm and then I knew I was going short side but I didn't mean to put it up high. I just kind of threw it and whacked at it again. I'm not sure if that helped it go in or not. Like I said earlier, after getting robbed it was nice to get that one back for sure."
Minutes earlier, Reimer had robbed what appeared to be a sure-goal from MacKinnon with a glove save on a one-timer from MacKinnon after a Colin Wilson centering pass. It was a huge save at the time but MacKinnon refused to be denied on this night, one in which he easily could have scored at least four goals given how dangerous he was.
The win started Colorado off on the right foot as they began a stretch of 12 home games in their next 15, a golden opportunity for the team if they want to make a little noise in the Central Division this season.
"It's awesome," MacKinnon said of the home win. "[Head coach Jared Bednar] told us this morning that 12 of our next 15 games are at home which is big. I think we took ourselves out of that earlier homestand. Losing four out of five is unacceptable and obviously, it was a good road trip to go .500 against those teams we played. We're looking for a good homestand here. With 12 of 15, we're looking for a lot of wins. We're not going to put a number on it but just stick with the process."
The process has continued to be a theme of MacKinnon's this year as he has repeatedly cited his focus on playing the right way as the reason for his points explosion. After a slow start, MacKinnon has scored 30 points in his last 21 games and he currently sits in a five-way tie for 12th in the NHL in scoring at 35 points on the year.
"Against Washington, I wasn't very good so I just wanted to bounce back tonight," MacKinnon stated. "I think game-by-game is the best thing for me. I play my worst when I try to think about points or be point-oriented. I just try to stick with it and hope stuff happens."
No. 29 for Colorado certainly was among the more dangerous players on the ice in the game's scoreless first period as the Avalanche struggled to work their way into the game, initially getting outshot 5-0 before waking up and finding their legs. The Avalanche really found their stride early in the second period when Tyson Jost tapped a puck to pinching defenseman Tyson Barrie, who made a cross-ice feed to MacKinnon for a one-timer that blew past Reimer and gave Colorado the 1-0 lead just 3:15 into the second period.
"[Barrie] made a great play putting it across and I just lift it and hit the short side," MacKinnon said nonchalantly of his rocket. "I knew if I hit it was going to go in. It's just a matter of me executing. Like I said, Tyson made a great play, same with Jost. It was obviously nice to get on the board."
Florida would eventually tie the game with a shorthanded goal after Sam Girard was stripped of the puck by Jared McCann and he fed it to Aleksander Barkov, who beat goaltender Semyon Varlamov, who stopped 32 of 33 shots, for the Panthers' only goal of the night. Barkov, the second overall selection of the 2013 NHL Draft behind MacKinnon, is no rival in MacKinnon's eyes as he feels each player landed in the right place.
"We both found homes here," MacKinnon said simply.
While MacKinnon and Barkov may have found homes, it has been easy to trace the explosion of MacKinnon's production back to the displacement of former Avalanche star Matt Duchene. While outsiders continue to wonder about the overall impact of Duchene's departure on the Avalanche, the players have certainly moved on and don't pay it much mind anymore.
"It's definitely more responsibility," MacKinnon admitted of his evolving role in the wake of Duchene's departure. "[Duchene] was one of our best players and he did attract a lot of attention. I was playing against top d-pairs on the other team and the top lines and that's not changing. It's not like he got traded and now I get all the best players. It's been like that for two years now. Honestly, I don't think about it that much...or at all really."
Some of that increased responsibility has come in the form of playing quite a bit more as the Avalanche have been running out 11 forwards and seven defensemen for the last several games. He has picked up the slack and continues to slot in next to the extra forwards as Bednar sees fit and tonight he played 22:03, second on the Avalanche behind only defenseman Erik Johnson.
"It's fun. It's a challenge, for sure, as a forward playing that much," said MacKinnon, who has played at least 21 minutes in the last six games. "I like it, especially when you're feeling it, and I was feeling good tonight. You definitely want to get back out there."
As much fun as he's having, it's just the opposite for opposing teams trying to slow down Colorado's demo man. While DMX might sing Colorado's win song this year ("Ruff Ryders' Anthem"), MacKinnon has spent the season skating to the tune of World Class Wreckin' Cru.