The 2013 No. 1 overall draft pick's maturation as a hockey player and coach Patrick Roy's confidence in him was on full display Saturday night as MacKinnon scored the game winner in the Avalanche's 4-1 victory over the Montreal Canadiens.
With Alex Tanguay out of the game after injuring his knee in the second period, Roy had to make a decision with his lineup. Would he replace Tanguay on the right side of his second-scoring line with a veteran or with the rookie MacKinnon?
He chose MacKinnon, and the decision paid off.
Midway through the third period, Gabriel Landeskog fired a shot from the left side that bounced off Montreal goaltender Peter Budaj and into the middle of the slot. MacKinnon was driving to the net and knocked the puck with the backside of his stick past Budaj's glove and into the cage to give Colorado back the lead.
"We lost Tanguay, and it was a big loss for us," Roy said. "Nate came in, we put him on the right side, and it was a great shot from Landy and a rebound by him. That's a big goal. It's good for [MacKinnon's] confidence, and it's good for our team."
The goal was big for several reasons: Montreal had tied the game five minutes earlier and was beginning to pick up steam in the final period, but the tally swung the momentum back to the Avs' side and they used it to score two more times before the final horn sounded.
It was MacKinnon's second goal of his career and ended his seven-game goalless drought. The tally was also seen throughout Canada as the game was televised nationally on Hockey Night in Canada and on RDS, allowing friends, family and fans to witness it back in his home province of Nova Scotia—coincidently, an area where the Canadiens have a very strong following.
MacKinnon's first goal was Oct. 12 in Washington, so Saturday's score was his first in front of the Pepsi Center faithful.
"It was my first goal on home ice and to score in front of a sellout crowd and on Adam Foote's jersey retirement felt really good," he said. "I was definitely really fortunate that Landy had a nice shot, and it kind of came right to my stick."
While the tally was nice and helped give the Avalanche its 12th win of the season and sixth in a row, it also showed MacKinnon's development as an NHL player.
The 18-year-old had played at center all season on Colorado's third line, but he was playing on the right side after Roy was forced to switch up his lines mid-game against the Canadiens. With the Avs attacking up the ice, MacKinnon realized playing on the wall wasn't the best position to be at and showed his hockey awareness to move to the center of the ice.
"I was coming up the wall, and I realized that's not the spot where I'm going to score," MacKinnon said. "I tried to drive the net, and obviously that was a great kick save I guess in our favor to my stick. You can't miss those ones, and it felt really good to put that one in."
Like the teenager he is, MacKinnon wore a giant smile on his face for several minutes after scoring the goal, but he brought back his excitement a bit after the contest and turned his attention to Colorado's next game.
"Even now, we are 12-1 and I think everyone is this locker room can feel that we're not satisfied," MacKinnon said. "That's the exciting part: that we can get better. We're playing pretty solid hockey, but there are always things that we can work on. Twelve-and-one is great, but 13-1 is better and that's what we're looking to do."
That sounds like a young player quickly realizing what being in the NHL is all about.