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NHL Stadium Series

Avalanche feel they earned right to play Stadium Series against Kings

MacKinnon says status as Cup contender makes outdoor game at Air Force extra special

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

DENVER -- The goal was gorgeous. Nathan MacKinnon sped up the left wing under the lights before 50,095 fans at Coors Field when the Colorado Avalanche played the Detroit Red Wings in the 2016 NHL Stadium Series. At the top of the left circle, the forward snapped the puck past goalie Petr Mrazek. The crowd roared.

But to MacKinnon, the highlight might as well be in black and white. 

"Honestly," he said, "it feels like another lifetime ago."

 

[RELATED: Complete 2020 NHL Stadium Series Coverage]

 

Looking back, that outdoor game wasn't as satisfying as one the Avalanche will play against the Los Angeles Kings in the 2020 Navy Federal Credit Union Stadium Series at the U.S. Air Force Academy's Falcon Stadium on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, SN360, TVAS, AFN|sports2).

"It's cool to be on a really good team and kind of earn this game, not just because of what the guys did in 2001," MacKinnon said.

That game at Coors Field felt more about the past than the present. The matchup recalled the Colorado-Detroit rivalry of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the Avalanche won the Stanley Cup in 1996 and 2001 and Detroit won it in 1997, 1998 and 2002. The alumni stole the spotlight.

The Avalanche entered that game holding the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Western Conference. They lost 5-3 and ended up missing the playoffs.

"We kind of had a bad year," MacKinnon said.

It got worse the next season, when the Avalanche finished last in the NHL with 48 points, the lowest total in a full season since the League introduced the salary cap in 2005-06. 

But they made the playoffs in 2017-18, losing to the Nashville Predators in six games in the Western Conference First Round, and made the playoffs last season, defeating the Calgary Flames in five games in the first round before losing to the San Jose Sharks in the second.

Video: 2020 Stadium Series at Falcon Stadium time-lapse

They're second in the Central Division this season with a record of 33-17-6, two points behind the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues and tied with the New York Islanders for the sixth-best record in the NHL in terms of point percentage (.643).

"We're pretty different now," MacKinnon said. "Now we're, in my opinion, a Cup-contender team. We can beat anybody. Back then, we were just trying to make the playoffs."

MacKinnon sees commercials for the game at the Air Force Academy using highlights from the game at Coors Field, and what leaps out at him as how much the roster has changed. Three players who played outdoors in 2016 will play Saturday: MacKinnon, forward Gabriel Landeskog and defenseman Erik Johnson

Among the new faces: forward Mikko Rantanen and defensemen Samuel Girard and Cale Makar.

Video: COL@OTT: Makar cranks home heavy one-timer for PPG

MacKinnon ranks fourth in the NHL in scoring with 80 points (32 goals, 48 assists), and is on pace for the best statistical season of his career. Some of that is because of the talent that made him the No. 1 pick of the 2013 NHL Draft. Some of that is because of his intensity and work ethic. And some of that is because he is surrounded by a better supporting cast.

"It's definitely easier to play on a good team," he said.

That the Avalanche are.

"It's kind of like our team's sort of arrived a little bit," Johnson said. "You know, we haven't won anything yet. But I know we're viewed as a contender from the West. There's definitely a different feeling in our locker room that we sort of belong in a game like that, a national game. It's fun to know that we are a good team now and there for a reason."

Landeskog, the captain, said this game will highlight how far the Avalanche have come and how much farther they hope to go.

"I feel like it's an exciting time to be a part of one of these outdoor games," he said. "I see it as a privilege. Eyes are opening a little bit outside of just the Denver area and seeing not only that we're a good team this year but also that the passion is there in Colorado, and the fans deserve to have a big party like this. It should be a lot of fun.

"It's an important game, and coming down the stretch here, we're looking to keep climbing, and I think that's an exciting opportunity to have. Hopefully people will realize this is a big game and obviously we're going to try to enjoy the festivities and whatnot, but this time around, it will be different. It's not much about the alumni. It's more about us and what we're trying to do."

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