A star is born

Semyon Varlamov was terrific in Game 2, but he wasn't the Avs' best player.

Semyon Varlamov was terrific in Game 2, but he wasn’t the Avs’ best player.

When the NHL playoffs began, oddsmakers really had no idea who might emerge as an offensive force for the Avalanche. The club’s leading scorer during the regular season, Matt Duchene, was injured. So one offshore sports book set the over/under on points in the first round at 4.5. For everybody.

Paul Stastny was 4.5, Gabriel Landeskog was 4.5, Ryan O’Reilly was 4.5, Nathan MacKinnon was 4.5.

Through two games, the 18-year-old MacKinnon already has seven, tying an NHL record for the first two playoff games of a career. The 28-year-old Stastny has matched him. They are playing alongside Landeskog, the 21-year-old team captain, on a line that has dominated the first two games since coming together out of necessity late in Game 1. What’s remarkable is it wasn’t a line at all when the series began.

“We wanted to try in the first game Nate in the middle with Ryan and P.A. [Parenteau] and then we went back to this,” coach Patrick Roy explained after MacKinnon, the favorite to win the league’s Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, put on a show nobody on hand will soon forget.

He didn’t merely use his speed to fly through and around the Wild, he embarrassed and ultimately intimidated the visitors from Minnesota. One is tempted to use the cliche that he was a man among boys, except, of course, MacKinnon is a boy among men, and he’s making his elders look helpless.

His first goal of the series came six minutes and 20 seconds into Game 2, after Minnesota had taken the early lead by chesting a rebound into the net just ahead of the chester, center Charlie Coyle, who drove the goal assembly off its moorings and forced a video review to determine whether he or the puck had penetrated first. The puck won and the goal counted.

Two minutes later, Stastny picked up the puck deep in his own end and fed MacKinnon on the left side inside the Avs’ blue line. MacKinnon took the pass, veered right and carried it around Wild center Mikko Koivu as if he were standing still. The first pick in the 2013 draft accelerated across the red line with all three Wild forwards in pursuit. In front of him were the Minnesota defensemen, Nate Prosser and Jared Spurgeon.

Prosser was to MacKinnon’s left and never got into the play. Spurgeon was slightly to his right. The Wild defenseman slid to his right to block MacKinnon’s path to the net. The Avs rookie looked for a moment as if he would blow between them. Then he swerved right. Spurgeon, whose momentum was taking him the wrong way, suddenly found himself in a Marx Bros. movie. His left skate went out from under him, his stick rose high in the air, as if seeking divine guidance, and he crashed to the ice. The only thing missing was the laugh track.

Wide open now, MacKinnon slid into the right circle and fired the puck over goalie Ilya Bryzgalov’s left shoulder.

“I wanted to kind of fake to the middle and kind of jump to the outside,” MacKinnon said afterward. “I didn’t know that I’d have that much room. Obviously, I was pretty fortunate that he bit on it, I guess, and I just kind of fired it on net and thankfully it went in.”

“I was laughing,” Stastny said. “That’s unbelievable. You don’t see that a lot. When he has that much speed, you’ve got to respect him. One little shoulder fake and that’s what happens. If he doesn’t cross over, he probably goes right down the middle. That shows how much respect they have for him and that shows how good he is at kind of shifting his weight. That was a pretty sweet goal.”

Not quite three minutes into the second period, Stastny and MacKinnon combined on almost exactly the same start, except this time they weren’t quite as deep in their own end. Stastny got the puck by the left boards and fed MacKinnon on the Colorado side of the center line. Again, MacKinnon carried the puck right around Koivu in the neutral zone and gathered speed as he approached the retreating defensemen.

Ryan Suter didn’t want to do a Spurgeon-like pratfall, so he retreated faster and was ready to go with MacKinnon when he went wide. That left a hole in the middle, so MacKinnon deftly dropped the puck to Landeskog, who was trailing him, yelling, “Drop it! Drop it!”

“Sure was,” Landeskog said with a smile. “He came through the neutral zone with speed and I saw that I had some room around me and Nate kind of took the D wide and made a nice drop pass to me and I had some room so I tried to get the shot off real quick.”

Landeskog drilled the puck over Bryzgalov’s glove and it was 2-1.

“I knew Landy was coming late,” MacKinnon said. “I didn’t know he had that much time, but I heard him yelling, so kind of like my first goal, I just wanted to cut to the outside and I heard him yelling and obviously, that was a heck of a shot by Landy.”

MacKinnon wasn’t finished. Nine minutes later, he did it again, taking a pass from defenseman Tyson Barrie on the far left side, again on Colorado’s side of the red line. This time he went around Koivu by passing the puck to himself off the boards. He dashed past Spurgeon into the left corner, then backhanded the puck to Stastny in the left circle, who spun and backhanded it to Landeskog coming up the slot. With Bryzgalov hugging the right side of the goal against MacKinnon’s charge, the entire left side of the net was wide open for Landeskog, who chipped it in.

“He’s terrorizing them right now with his speed,” Avalanche analyst Peter McNab said on the telecast.

“Paulie and I, we know when we play with him to use his speed and get it to him in the neutral zone,” said Landeskog, who has three points in the series so far, all of them goals. “He’s going to take ’em wide, and then we have to yell at him a little bit to use us, but he certainly did tonight, and it paid off. The skills he’s got, the way he skates, I haven’t seen anything like it.”

Minnesota coach Mike Yeo was at a loss, so he switched goaltenders at 3-1, but the game was pretty much over. When Yeo pulled his second goaltender, Darcy Kuemper, near the end, the Avs had a Parenteau empty-netter disallowed on a dubious offsides call, gave up a shorthanded goal with a minute and 19 seconds remaining, missed an empty-netter when Stastny hit a post, then finally scored into the empty net when MacKinnon insisted on feeding Stastny one more time. The final was 4-2. The series moves to Minnesota with Colorado up two games to none.

“That line was on fire tonight,” Roy said. “They played really well. Landy and Paulie and Nate, I mean they had an outstanding game. They were moving the puck really well. They were skating well. Was it the third or second goal when Paulie went from behind to put it to Landy? That was, wow, that was a super play. But I have to say one thing here: All our guys played really well. I thought that was a really good team win.”

Nobody wants to lather up the 18-year-old, for all the obvious reasons, but this kid sounded like a player twice his age. Somebody asked him which goal he would celebrate more, the first or second.

“I think I’d like to forget about everything tonight,” he said. “I’m definitely proud of the way the team played and the way Paulie and Landy played, but for me, I just want to kind of forget about it and get ready for practice tomorrow. Obviously, it’s always nice to have some personal success, but it’s not the main thing for me at all.”

Perhaps the most pronounced effect he’s having is to tame the Wild’s aggressiveness when he’s on the ice. If he has just one or two men to beat, he’s proved he can not only do it, he can embarrass them in the process.

“It’s a matter of continuing to press, continuing to push, but doing it with a sense of, I don’t want to say caution, but at the same time we have to be very understanding and aware in particular of who you’re on the ice against and making sure that while you’re pressing, while you’re pushing, you’re not opening yourself up too,” said Yeo, the Wild coach.

The fact that an 18-year-old who was playing juniors last season is doing this to a good NHL team is stunning.

“At 18, I was in college,” said Stastny. “I was enjoying my time. I was at DU. I think 18-year-olds now compared to 10 years ago are different. Body-wise, they’re more mature, they’re more advanced, whether they start working out or the science kind of develops them a little earlier. But at the same time, he’s unbelievable. We’ve seen it all year, since the beginning of training camp, so every time something happens, it doesn’t really surprise us.”

“I think since Christmas he’s been getting better every night, which is pretty scary stuff,” Parenteau said.

And it wasn’t just at the glory end. The three scoring plays all began in the Avs’ end, which, in Roy’s system, is no accident.

“You guys are looking at points,” Roy told reporters, “but I’m looking at how he performed both sides of the ice. He’s been playing well offensively, yes, but he also played really well defensively. He made some great plays and that’s what I want to see from him. I’m happy when he puts points on the board, but I want him to play well defensively, and that’s what that line did.”

Colorado hockey fans have seen great players dominate playoff games before — Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, Roy himself.

Which reminds me, goaltender Semyon Varlamov was back on his game after allowing four goals in Game 1. Saturday night, he stopped 30 of 32 shots. Of the two that made it through, one was the aforementioned chester by a charging center who literally ran into the puck.

“It’s a team game,” Varlamov said. “When the team plays better, I play better.”

“I didn’t make too much of the first game,” Roy said. “In my opinion, he played well enough to win. A goalie don’t need always to be perfect. He needs to find a way to win. And tonight, he was rock solid. He made some key saves at the right time. That’s the type of performance I was, not expecting, but I thought he was going to offer. I mean, I’m having so much confidence in him. He’s been our best player all year and tonight it was just a solid game from him.”

Good as he was, Varlamov was not Colorado’s best player in Game 2. Seldom have hockey fans anywhere been treated to a show of athletic virtuosity as transcendent as Nathan MacKinnon provided Saturday night.

About Dave Krieger

Dave Krieger is a recidivist newspaperman. View all posts by Dave Krieger

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