|ESPN.com: NHL Playoffs 2014||[Print without images]|
DENVER -- The Stanley Cup playoffs are supposed to be a grind. They're a place young teams are supposed to get chewed up and spit out in a learning process that, years later, they can reference when they win something meaningful.
It's why you tempered your expectations for a young team like the Colorado Avalanche and its 18-year-old star, Nathan MacKinnon. Sure, his speed puts him among a class of the league's elite, but this is the playoffs -- the place for big, banging wingers and dirty goals that take multiple shots, second efforts and traffic in front of the goalie.
Well, for one night in Denver, that's not what the playoffs looked like.
For one night, speed and talent and passing and creativity won out. The young Avalanche beat the Minnesota Wild 4-2 to open a 2-0 series lead. It was the teenager MacKinnon leading the way, like he woke up Saturday morning and decided he was going to be the best player in the postseason.
That's exactly what he looked like for stretches during the Avalanche win.
"He's unbelievable," Colorado center Paul Stastny said. "Every time something happens, it doesn't surprise us."
Still, he's 18 years old. Eighteen. When Stastny was 18 years old, he was in college, trying to get rid of baby fat.
"Not making any money. I was spending my parents money," he said, smiling. "To be 18 again."
The NHL postseason hasn't seen anything like this in awhile. With four points against the Wild, MacKinnon now has seven career playoff points. He's already among the top-10-scoring 18-year-olds in NHL postseason history. He's played two games.
About the only indication after the game that this was all a huge thrill for him was admitting to watching the replay of his first NHL postseason goal on the giant Pepsi Center scoreboard.
"We were making a change. I had an excuse for looking," he said. Otherwise, he kept his composure, saying that in order to have consistency in the playoffs, he'll need a short memory. That first playoff goal, though? He'll remember that one for awhile.
He got the puck as he entered the neutral zone, blew past Mikko Koivu at center ice and was flying into the offensive zone when he shifted to the right, spinning defenseman Marco Scandella to the ice. He fired a shot that beat Ilya Bryzgalov and erased an early 1-0 Minnesota lead.
His speed was just as lethal in setting up the next two goals of the game, goals the Wild would never recover from.
On the first of two Gabriel Landeskog goals, MacKinnon got the puck near center ice and flew straight in on Ryan Suter, who gave up just enough room for MacKinnon to find a teammate. He dropped the puck back for Landeskog, who beat Bryzgalov for his second goal of this postseason.
"I just wanted [Suter] to turn his feet and see what happened from there," MacKinnon said. "Gabe was yelling for it. I don't have eyes in the back of my head -- he made a good play by screaming for it. I'd say he's not missing from there, but it was a heck of a shot."
Nine minutes later, all three players on the dominant MacKinnon-Stastny-Landeskog line showed off their skills.
MacKinnon sped the puck up the wall and backhanded the puck to Stastny, who twirled a pass to a gliding-in Landeskog. Landeskog buried it before a stretched Bryzgalov could make the save.
For good measure, it was McKinnon who fed Stastny to seal the game on an empty-netter. A four-point night for MacKinnon following his three-point playoff debut on Thursday, vaulting him up the NHL record books.
"You know what? I'm different than you guys," said Colorado coach Patrick Roy when asked about the points MacKinnon is piling up. "You guys are looking at points. I'm looking at how he performed on both sides of the ice. He's been playing well offensively, yes. He also played well defensively. That's what I want to see from him."
The Avalanche are a fascinating team in these playoffs. They're young. They have guys like MacKinnon who are getting better even as we witness them on the ice.
He said he had three days to think about whether or not his skills would translate to the playoffs. That question has been answered.
The question we're still not sure about is whether a team that isn't a great possession team can thrive over the long haul in this postseason. Even in this win, one in which the Avalanche were dominant, 55.7 percent of the game's shot attempts were in Colorado goalie Semyon Varlamov's direction.
After the game, Wild coach Mike Yeo brought it up. At times on Saturday, and over the course of their regular season, his team had the Avs hemmed in and controlled play for large stretches.
Then, the game changes in a moment.
"It's kind of one mistake, and it goes the other way," Yeo said after the loss. One mistake and MacKinnon is streaking through the neutral zone, blowing past helpless defenders, working his way to the wall while his linemates drive the net.
One mistake and Landeskog buries a shot or Stastny uses his vision to set up a quality scoring chance. Maybe a goalie change -- Darcy Kuemper was perfect on 14 shots -- will help Minnesota cover up those mistakes. Maybe a return home will help the Wild get their bearings and find a way to slow down MacKinnon and his teammates. They know that's imperative, or else this series will be over faster than MacKinnon on open ice.
"You can't defend on your heels. We were defending on our heels tonight. That's not good enough," Suter said. "You have to get the next one. That has to be the mindset. You can't get frustrated. We didn't play the way we're capable of playing and they played well. They played really well."