Avalanche head coach Patrick Roy has said Nathan MacKinnon's has taken massive steps in his development as a player since his first game. MacKinnon has even said he's grown a lot since he first donned Colorado's burgundy and blue colors and skated on the Pepsi Center ice Oct. 2 against Anaheim.
Yet, now 41 games and officially halfway through his first NHL season, MacKinnon is still a rookie at heart and can still show those energetic, youthful traits displayed by an 18-year-old playing in the National Hockey League.
That excitement was clear after MacKinnon scored his second goal Saturday afternoon against the San Jose Sharks. He received a pass from John Mitchell in the neutral zone, raced down the right-wing boards and fired a wrist shot with pinpoint accuracy over goalie Alex Stalock's right shoulder and into the top left corner of the net at 5:59 of the second period.
"I was aiming for the left side," MacKinnon said. "It happens so quick that you can't really stare at a spot, but thankfully I caught the left post and it went in."
After the puck hit twine and as MacKinnon was making his way around the end wall to begin celebrating his 12th goal of the season with his teammates, there was a giant smile and almost a look of disbelief on his face.
"It was fun for sure," he said. "With your teammates around you, it definitely rubs off. It was a big goal for our team."
The tally ended up being the game winner in the Avalanche's 4-3 victory and capped off a stretch where Colorado scored three goals in 1:06. It also came just 14 seconds after San Jose made a goalie change, replacing starter Antti Niemi with Stalock.
MacKinnon scored his first goal on the power play with 4:32 left in the first period, doing what Roy has stressed with his team recently: getting in front of the net to disrupt the goaltender's sight lines and put away rebounds if they come. Placing himself in front of Niemi, MacKinnon tipped Andre Benoit's shot from the point over the goalie's right shoulder to give Colorado a 1-0 lead.
"He did a good job," Roy said. "He was in front of the net for that first goal, got rewarded for it."
The game marked MacKinnon's first multi-goal effort of his career, and he became the youngest player in franchise history to score two goals in a game. He broke the mark set by Ryan O’Reilly, who was 18 years, 272 days when he lit the lamp twice on Nov. 6, 2009 vs. Chicago.
As of Saturday afternoon, MacKinnon leads all league rookies in scoring with 26 points (12 goals, 14 assists). He is one point ahead of San Jose rookie Tomas Hertl (15 goals, 10 assists), who didn't play against Colorado and is out of the lineup with a knee injury he suffered Dec. 19.
However, leading the league's rookies in points doesn't seem to be the main thing on MacKinnon's mind.
"That's not my focus," he said. "It’s a long season, and if I end up leading it, I lead it. If not, I just want the team to have a good record and make the playoffs."
Saturday's game might be one that MacKinnon might not soon forget. If not for the goals and the win, then for it also being his mother's birthday.
He gave her one heck of a present.
"All she wanted was a win," he said, "and thankfully I managed to score for her as well."
Saturday's game marked the Avs' halfway point of the season, and the club has a 26-11-4 record (56 points) and stands third in the Central Division and fifth in the Western Conference.
However, while where the Avalanche currently sits in the standings is nice, Roy said he is most pleased with players buying into the system after 41 games.
"I've been saying all along how proud I am of our team," he said. "Guys are working hard every day. Stepping on the ice, they don't ask questions, they go out there and play what we ask them to do. They are extremely receptive to the teaching that we have been doing, and our guys have been showing a lot of consistency. We're all about the team. It's a team concept, everybody is pushing hard, and everybody wants to give us a chance to make the playoffs."
Colorado’s 26 wins equal its most-ever at the midpoint of the season, while its 56 points trails only the 2000-01 team for the best record after 41 games.
Yet, those 41 games are just half of the season, and Roy said the team needs to put together a strong second part of the year if it wants to still be playing come late April.
"There is a long way," Roy said. "The second half of the season will be another challenge for us, but I am very happy with our team. We're playing well defensively, power play is moving the puck even better. Penalty killing has been outstanding for us. It's been a great start for us, but it's only a start. Let's make sure we're ready for that second half."
BEST RECORDS AT HALFWAY MARK (41 GAMES) IN FRANCHISE HISTORY
Includes full 82-game seasons only
26-8-7-0, 59 points, 2000-01
26-11-4, 56 points, 2013-14
24-10-7, 55 points, 1996-97
21-8-12, 54 points, 1997-98
22-10-7-2, 53 point,s 2003-04
MCGINN DOES IT AGAIN
For the third time in as many games, Avs forward Jamie McGinn found the back of the net.
McGinn scored the Avalanche's first goal of the second period to extend Colorado's lead to 2-0 and his goal streak to three games, which ties his career long set March 4-8, 2012.
Matt Duchene helped create the goal as he forced a turnover at the right circle, allowing McGinn to pick up the loose puck, streak to the net and lift a wrist shot over Niemi's left shoulder at 4:53 of the stanza.
It was McGinn's second goal of the season against the Sharks, the team that drafted him in 2006. He played his first four NHL seasons with San Jose.
"It's kind of in the past, but I definitely wanted to win against these guys," McGinn said afterwards. "I thought we had a good chance to do it in San Jose [on Dec. 23], so it is good to bounce back and get two points tonight."
Defenseman Erik Johnson continued his strong play as he scored his seventh goal of the season Saturday against San Jose.
Johnson is now on a season-long, four-game point streak (goal and four assists) and has 10 points (five goals, five assists) in his last 10 games.
He scored at 5:45 of the second period as he stopped the puck as it was going along the wall at the right point and threw it on net. The puck took a fortunate bounce and beat Niemi far side. It was the last shot Niemi faced before being pulled.
Johnson leads all defenseman in points (19), goals (seven) and assists (12).
The Avalanche scored three times in a matter of 1:06, including twice in 14 seconds, to take a 4-0 lead into the second period. Jamie McGinn, Erik Johnson and Nathan MacKinnon all scored in Colorado's fastest three goals of the season.
The previous fastest three tallies this year came from Max Talbot, PA Parenteau and Nathan MacKinnon in 4:28 on Dec. 6 at Calgary. It was the fastest three goals for the club since March 8, 2004, when the Avs scored three times in a franchise-record 51 seconds at Vancouver (Steve Konowalchuk, Joe Sakic and Darby Hendrickson).
It started a 5:18 stretch that featured five total goals, a Sharks goalie change and five penalties.
"That's fun hockey right there," McGinn said of the five-plus minute stretch. "It was intense, the crowd was into it; seemed like they were enjoying themselves, and we feed off of it. That's hockey. We have to play in those types of games sometimes, and I thought the boys rose to the challenge."
TANGUAY INJURY UPDATE
The next time the Avalanche hit the ice could be a big test for Alex Tanguay and his injured hip/knee.
Roy said after Friday's practice that Tanguay would skate early next week for the first time since suffering a knee injury Nov. 2 against Montreal.
"Monday or Tuesday will be a big test for him," Roy said. "He's going to skate and if it goes well, we'll keep going [with his rehab program]. If it's not, then we're probably going to have to have surgery for his hip. That's where we are."
Tanguay's hip ailment arose while he was rehabbing the knee injury. He has nine points (three goals, six assists) in 13 games this season.
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