As Patrick Roy watched Nathan MacKinnon carve up the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League playoffs last spring, he knew the kid was something special.
MacKinnon led his Halifax team to the QMJHL title with 11 goals and 22 assists in 17 games and went from one of the top prospects to the No. 1 overall pick in June.
His skills were known to a few when the Avalanche drafted him, but now the Minnesota Wild and the rest of the NHL are seeing just how special this 18-year-old rookie is.
MacKinnon dazzled again in Game 5 against the Wild on Saturday, but he saved his biggest thrill for overtime. Taking a pass from captain Gabriel Landeskog, MacKinnon shook off a check and snapped a shot past goaltender Darcy Kuemper 3:27 into the extra period to give Colorado an improbable 4-3 win.
The goal gave Colorado a 3-2 lead in the series with a chance to move on with a Game 6 victory in Minnesota on Monday night.
MacKinnon is the second youngest player in Stanley Cup playoff history to score an overtime goal, but after the game he was calm and collected describing the winner.
“I was kind of screaming for the puck from Landy,” MacKinnon said softly. “He obviously made a good heads-up play to me. I kind of just fired it to the net and I don’t know if it tipped off one of their defenders or not, but I’m definitely very fortunate for the win.”
MacKinnon has played beyond his years in this series and has provided jump-out-of-your-seat plays that evoke memories of Peter Forsberg. In Game 2, he pretzeled defenseman Jared Spurgeon for his first playoff goal. On Saturday, he used his blazing speed to get the puck deep, then left a drop pass for Andre Benoit, whose shot from the point was tipped home by fellow blue liner Nate Holden.
While these moves impress most, MacKinnon’s teammates are getting used to them.
“He could have taken it himself, but he drops it and Benny shoots it and Holdy tips it,” Paul Stastny said almost matter-of-factly.
MacKinnon has a league-leading 10 points in this series despite getting more attention from the Wild. Minnesota has become more physical with him, and although he didn’t score a point in Games 3 and 4 he broke out with a three-point game Saturday.
He took a hard hit along the boards late in the third period but brushed himself off and kept playing.
“They’ve been clean. I can’t say they’ve been dirty towards me,” MacKinnon said of Minnesota’s play. “Overall, they played just a hard game.”
That’s a reaction that usually takes years of experience to master. MacKinnon has reached that point in six months.
“We knew when we drafted him what kind of player we were drafting, and he had a solid game again tonight,” Roy said. “Their line moved the puck well, and that (overtime goal) was a big goal for us. Big goal.”
What they’ve gotten is the presumptive Calder Trophy winner after leading all rookies in goals (24-tied), assists (39) and points (63) in the regular season. They’ve also gotten a guy who can make clutch plays, like his dump down low that led to P.A. Parenteau’s tying goal with 1:14 left in regulation.
“The kid’s special. The sky’s the limit for this kid,” Parenteau said. “I know it’s cliché to say, but it’s pretty impressive to see. They tried to shut him down all night, they tried to shut him down in Minny and he got a huge goal for us. On our second goal he made an unbelievable play. This is the kid we want on our side.”
MacKinnon doesn’t mind having Parenteau on his side. The winger is also in his first playoffs, and he came up with the biggest goal of his career when he skated to the front of the net and one-timed Stastny’s pass over Kuemper’s shoulder.
“P.A. had an outstanding game, especially in the third period,” MacKinnon said. “He played so well for us.”
With the series moving back to Minnesota, the Avalanche has a chance to wrap it up and advance to the second round for first time since 2008.
If Colorado gets there, MacKinnon will be a big reason.