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August 22, 2020


Nathan MacKinnon during the season, above, and after the game Saturday night, below.    


Because overreaction to single playoff games is as much of an NHL tradition as Zamboni drivers doing their duty between periods, the Avalanche's 5-3 loss in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals Saturday night seemed to draw a gloom-draped reaction.


It was as if GaryBettman had stepped in and ruled that Colorado had played such a shaky game, the NHL was going to count it as two losses.


This series is going seven games, unless the Avalanche's goaltending situation completely crumbles in the wake of Philipp Grubauer's off night and the injury he suffered in the second period that brought on Pavel Francouz for the rest of the game. The other justified concern is defenseman Erik Johnson's status moving forward because of a leg injury he first suffered in the first period, and ended up limiting him to 10 minutes of ice time -- including zero in the third.


Nathan MacKinnon, who had two goals and an assist in Game 1, will continue to step up -- and in wins as the series continues. This much was driven home: He's the best player on the ice in this series.


The game was nationally televised on NBC -- the Mother Ship, not a cable offshoot. When we get to this point, NBC more than ever is trying to sell the game to, and draw in, the general sports fan audience. I was reminded that MacKinnon now is being presented internationally as perhaps the top player in the game, or at least part of a short list of the candidates. That's in promotion of the broadcasts, and on the broadcasts themselves, in this case with Kenny Albert, Pierre McGuire and Eddie Olczyk during the game; and with Kathryn Tappen, ex-Av Keith Jones and Anson Carter in the studio. 


MacKinnon wasn't a happy camper during the Zoom postgame news conference


"We kind of felt it out instead of really coming out firing and imposing our will against them," he said in the Edmonton intervew room. "I felt like we kind of put our foot in the water and just kind of wanted to see how they would play. We know how we need to play. . .


"I think they came out flying and put us on our heels a little bit and we didn't respond the way we needed to. You prepare, you watch video of another team, you're so focused on them. We can try and relay that message that we can watch video all we want, but we're going to have to play our game if we're going to win. Tonight, they came out harder than us, they might have been more competitive than us. 


"I don't know, just an off night for us, I guess. No excuse for that."


I don't know if this is what MacKinnon meant, but this is what I'll say: If the Avs play their own game, rather than get caught up in overanalysis, they'll be much better off against the Stars -- and beyond. 

It's still interesting to witness MacKinnon's progression, given that as recently as three years ago, his horrible 2016-17, part of the Avs' worst bang-for-the-buck season in recent pro sports history, raised a string of issues.


Had the Avalanche gotten carried away, signing him to the seven-year, $44.1 million contract extension that locked him up through 2022-23? Was it going to become Sakic's Folly? MacKinnon seemed farther away from superstardom three years ago, when he was 21, than he had been at 18.


Would he ever live up to the lofty expectations raised by going No. 1 overall in the 2013 draft? Yes, he was the Calder winner as a rookie, and he had good seasons and stretches that made you wonder why he couldn't do that every night (so to speak). But would he get into the same realm as those considered "generational" overall No. 1s, such as Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews?


The breakout came in large measure because he held himself accountable and didn't look for and publicly cite excuses and rationalizations.           


"I put a lot of pressure on myself and I always have," MacKinnon told me in March 2017, as that dreadful season wound down. "I always felt like I was under the spotlight as a kid, and growing up in the same hometown (Halifax) as Sid (Crosby), there was always, 'The next Sidney,' which is tough.


"Hopefully this is just a down year. I feel like I handle pressure well. I play my best in the big games. . . Big games is what I like and there hasn't been and won't be technically a big game the rest of the season, which is unfortunate. At the same time, you have to be a good pro and come to the rink and be the best player you can be. Being the No. 1 overall pick, there's a lot of pressure that comes with that and I definitely have to be better, that's for sure."


He admitted that at that point, with a month remaining in the season, he was "embarrassed" by his total of 12 goals. The Avs were in the stretch run of an historically dreadful 48-point season that, to make matters worse, came as Colorado brushed the salary-cap ceiling.  

At the time, he acknowledged of McDavid and Matthews: "They're No. 1 overall picks and they're having lots of success. Hopefully, I will ..."


MacKinnon paused there to correct himself.


"No, I will be better than this," he said. "I've scored 25 goals a couple of times, or close to it, and last year, I got hurt at the end of the season, which was too bad, I felt like I was having a solid year. But, yeah, those guys are great players, and hopefully I can be at their level soon."


Three years later, MacKinnon hasn't just gotten to their level. 


He's better. 


And that contract? It's a bargain. Because of the league's hard cap rules, the Avs couldn't tear up the current deal and renegotiate even if they wanted to. He's now "underpaid" ... and, refreshingly, he hasn't griped about it.  

Maybe NBC could get him a guest shot on "This is Us."