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Second Round

MacKinnon uses advice from Crosby to build playoff streak for Avalanche

Friend, mentor helped forward on way to Game 4 against Sharks

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

DENVER -- Before the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon sent a text message to Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby, his friend and mentor.

"I kind of asked him, 'What do you got for me today?'" MacKinnon said. "'Whaddya got, Sid?'"

Crosby responded with this advice: Don't feel out the Calgary Flames in Game 1 of the Western Conference First Round. Attack them. Dictate the pace.

 

[RELATED: Complete Sharks vs. Avalanche series coverage]

 

MacKinnon didn't have a point in a 4-0 loss but felt the Avalanche set the tone. After that, he had eight points (three goals, five assists) in four games as they won the best-of-7 series in five.

Now, he has four points (two goals, two assists) in three games against the San Jose Sharks in the second round. The Avalanche are down 2-1 entering Game 4 at Pepsi Center on Thursday (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).

MacKinnon's seven-game playoff point streak is the first for Colorado since forward Peter Forsberg had a seven-game streak in 2004. His 12 points (five goals, seven assists) tie him with Sharks center Logan Couture and Vegas Golden Knights forward Mark Stone for the playoff scoring lead.

"When you have one of the best in the world, if not the best in the world, as a guy you lean on, you're certainly going to take positives away from that relationship," Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. "[MacKinnon has] learned a lot from him, I'm sure, over the years, and it's shown in [MacKinnon's] progression as a pro."

The story at the moment, though, is what MacKinnon can learn only on his own.

* * * * *

MacKinnon's relationship with Crosby is well-documented.

They grew up in the same town (Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia), attended the same high school (Shattuck-St. Mary's in Faribault, Minnesota), each went No. 1 in the NHL Draft (Crosby in 2005, MacKinnon in 2013) and hired the same trainer (Andy O'Brien).

Each offseason, they work out and hang out together. They even film TV commercials together.

"It's kind of like a brother relationship," MacKinnon said. "I'm rooting for him; I know he's rooting for me. He's got three Cups, and he's done it all. He's one of the best players ever, and it's cool to have his support and get some wisdom from him whenever he's available."

Here's where it gets interesting, though.

MacKinnon used watch Crosby in the playoffs but wouldn't be studying. He would go to The Stubborn Goat Gastropub in Halifax with his buddies in, as he put it, "fan mode."

After the Penguins won the Cup in 2016 and 2017, he went to Crosby's Cup parties. He looked at the Cup closely but didn't touch it, let alone raise it.

Some things you have to do yourself.

"You don't really know until you've arrived and played in it to really learn," MacKinnon said. "You can't really say in words what it's like. Like, I'm starting to experience a little of it. He's done 10 times more than I have, but I can relate to him a little bit now, I guess."

Asked for the biggest thing he had to experience firsthand, MacKinnon said, "I just think the highs and lows of the playoffs."

The Avalanche made the playoffs in MacKinnon's rookie season in 2013-14. He had 10 points (two goals, eight assists) in seven games, but they lost in the first round to the Minnesota Wild.

Colorado didn't make the playoffs again until last season. MacKinnon had six points (three goals, three assists) in a six-game, first-round loss to the Nashville Predators.

"We were just happy to be there," MacKinnon said. "No one said it, but I think everyone felt like we were going to lose, and we did."

Video: SJS@COL, Gm3: MacKinnon comes off bench and scores

There has been a different feeling this season. When the Avalanche lost to the Flames in Game 1 of the first round, they weren't shaken. They won four in a row. After they lost Game 1 to the Sharks in the second round, they tied the series. Now, they have to bounce back again.

"We feel like we can win the Cup now," MacKinnon said. "We didn't know if we'd make the playoffs, and now we feel pretty confident we can beat anybody, which is such a cool feeling.

"I haven't really felt like this before. I don't think anybody's really had this belief in this team, in this room. It definitely has been a long time coming. It's my sixth season. And I've never made it past the first round till this year. It's really exciting."

The next quote is no revelation. But it's one thing when you hear someone else say it, even someone like Crosby. It's another thing when you say it out of your own experience.

"Every game's its own," MacKinnon said. "Every game, it's a new game and a new opportunity to be better and to win it, and it doesn't matter what you did the night before. That's kind of the way I'm looking at things now."

* * * * *

MacKinnon and Crosby are different players and personalities. But they share some traits, one above all.

"They're both hyper, hyper competitive, and I think that's great," said defenseman Ian Cole, who played with Crosby in Pittsburgh from 2015-18 and signed as a free agent with Colorado in the offseason. "It pushes them to be the elite players that they are. They compete on every puck. They compete on every shift. They compete in practice.

"There are guys in this room that are nervous to go take a 2-on-1 with Nate or try to pass to him, because it's intimidating. He's so dialed in and so intense all the time. … You know that if you're going with him, you need to be on, and that's the same way for Sid."

MacKinnon has reached a new level. He had 97 points (39 goals, 58 assists) in 74 games last season, then 99 points (41 goals, 58 assists) in 82 games this season. The 23-year-old wants the puck all the time, and he has so much speed and skill that he can make plays others cannot.

Sometimes his teammates have to fight the urge to force passes to him.

"I think there is pressure and there are expectations, and you feel that sometimes when you're with him," said forward Alexander Kerfoot, who often plays on MacKinnon's right wing. "But it's just because he's so good and you want to get him the puck and allow him to make plays. You don't want to hold him back, in a sense."

If MacKinnon intimidates his teammates, imagine what he does to opposing defensemen.

The Sharks stifled Colorado's rush chances for most of Game 3 on Tuesday. But MacKinnon needs only a slice of ice to make a play.

After Cole intercepted a stretch pass by Sharks defenseman Brent Burns, he found MacKinnon streaking off the bench. In a blur, MacKinnon skated into the San Jose zone and fired a rocket from the right circle into the net far side. Just like that, a 2-0 San Jose lead was cut to 2-1 at 15:51 of the second period. The Avalanche would tie the game 2-2 in the third before losing 4-2.

"If he gets the puck in the neutral zone, the [defensemen] panic against him," Kerfoot said. "He's got so much speed, so much skill, and he has that mindset where he's attacking you. Like, he's coming at guys, and they instinctively back off.

"Sometimes he can't blow by guys because they give him so much respect. They know how fast he is. They don't want to get beat. The gap's so big that he's able to pull up and find late guys. He's a great playmaker as well."

Crosby would be proud.

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