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MacKinnon takes first Stanley Cup Playoffs in stride

by Rick Sadowski

CENTENNIAL, Colo. -- Patrick Roy has been watching the Nathan MacKinnon show for three years, two in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and as Colorado Avalanche coach since training camp, and it never gets old.

"I've been impressed with him from the first time I saw him play a game," Roy said Friday. "From there to now, his game goes up. He's been so receptive to teaching, he's been working hard and he's always level. I know who's going to show up tomorrow, he's going to be the same guy."

MacKinnon had three assists Thursday in his Stanley Cup Playoffs debut, when the Avalanche opened the best-of-7 Western Conference First Round with a 5-4 overtime win against the Minnesota Wild. Game 2 is Saturday at Pepsi Center (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, RDS, TSN, FS-N, ALT).

"Pretty amazing for his first game, three assists," Roy said. "He just showed the type of player he is. It's pretty impressive."

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, MacKinnon became the second-youngest player, 18 years, 228 days, to collect three points in his first playoff game. Pierre Turgeon was six days younger when he had two goals and an assist for the Buffalo Sabres on April 6, 1988.

MacKinnon, the first player chosen in the 2013 NHL Draft, was the sixth 18-year-old to get a point in a playoff game since 1979-80, joining Brian Bellows, Martin Lapointe, Patrick Marleau, Jordan Staal and Turgeon.

As MacKinnon has all season, he took the accomplishment in stride. He didn't set any expectations for himself before the season and isn't about to now, other than doing what he can to help the Avalanche advance.

"I don't care if I get a point, I just want to be consistent," said MacKinnon, who led NHL rookies in scoring with 63 points (24 goals, 39 assists) playing all 82 games, most of them as a right wing rather than at center, his natural position.

MacKinnon played the first two periods Thursday centering a line with Ryan O'Reilly and PA Parenteau because of injuries to centers Matt Duchene and John Mitchell, but Roy moved him back to right wing on a unit with Gabriel Landeskog and Paul Stastny for much of the third period after the Avalanche fell behind 4-2.

MacKinnon picked up an assist when Stastny tied the game with 13.4 seconds left in regulation, and he set up Stastny's game-winning shot against goalie Ilya Bryzgalov at 7:27 of overtime.

"For me, both times I was using the net to my advantage to shield the puck," MacKinnon said. "Obviously it was a nice rebound shot to Paulie's stick to tie it up. When I spun off in OT I heard him screaming. I know he's not missing from there."

Stastny called MacKinnon's overtime pass "a heads-up play," after Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie "took out a couple guys or he got taken out. Once the [defense] committed to Nate, I just tried to yell as quick as I could and just try to get a quick shot off."

MacKinnon proved to be a big-game player when he earned MVP honors at the Memorial Cup last spring by helping the Halifax Mooseheads win the championship, and his ability to come through in the clutch has continued. He had five game-winning goals this season.

"He doesn't change his game," Stastny said. "It doesn't matter how big the game is or who we're playing against; that's what makes him the player he is. He goes out there and competes all the time, wants to win, wants the puck."

MacKinnon did acknowledge being nervous before making his NHL postseason debut.

"I had some goose bumps early on, but it was exciting," he said. "I had some butterflies, but they went away pretty quickly and you focus on winning. When we focus on winning, everything else goes away. It's the NHL, it's really different. This is a new experience for sure. It's obviously faster, more intense. We're in this together; a lot of the guys haven't been to the playoffs before. At the same time, have some vets who have won Cups. Hockey is hockey."

Defenseman Erik Johnson has gained an appreciation for what young forwards MacKinnon and Duchene are capable of while watching from the bench between shifts during games and in practices.

"We have 1-on-1 drills and you really see how other teams' defensemen get put on their heels as they're coming down on you full bore," Johnson said. "We're pretty lucky to go against Nate and [Matt] in practice because they're so fast. That helps us for games. Nate is 18 years old and in three years he's going to be 21 and he's already one of our best players. It's just scary to think what a guy like him can become and what he is already. It's a lot of fun to watch. He does something new every game, has different tricks to the trade."

Avalanche executive vice president of hockey operations Joe Sakic was 19 when he began what would become a Hall of Fame career with the Quebec Nordiques and said MacKinnon is already more advanced than he was as a rookie.

"I think Patrick did a good job with him, not giving him too much right away, started him without that pressure. He's really grown and learned the game," Sakic said. "What I'm most impressed of is we all knew what he could do with the puck and his speed. What he's learned away from the puck has been very impressive to me. Having Patrick and this coaching staff and some of the older veterans, he's listened and learned."

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