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Avs’ MacKinnon belongs in best in NHL conversation

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As you can see from this Associated Press piece, there are some hot “best in the NHL” debates going around, with people batting around names like Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, and Auston Matthews.

Colorado Avalanche speedster Nathan MacKinnon‘s name didn’t come up in that conversation, but quite frankly, he’ll be impossible to ignore if keeps this up.

The 23-year-old has scored at least one point in all eight games, and his numbers are positively eye-popping. MacKinnon generated six points in the past two games alone, leaving him with a ridiculous eight goals and six assists for 14 points. As of this writing, only Auston Matthews (16 points in eight games) has generated more offense so far in 2018-19, while MacKinnon’s running mate Mikko Rantanen also has 14.

[More on Rantanen becoming a “driving force” for Colorado]

Remarkably, MacKinnon isn’t subsisting on a red-hot power play, either, as only two of his 14 points have come from the man advantage. With that in mind, it’s less shocking that MacKinnon’s seven even-strength goals currently lead the NHL.

It’s dangerous to rely too heavily on season stats, particularly when we’re still in October, but zooming out to last season really cements MacKinnon’s rise among the league’s most exhilarating scorers.

When you combine last season with these early showings, MacKinnon generated a whopping 111 points in just 84 games, trailing only Connor McDavid (119 in 87) and Claude Giroux (113 in 90). MacKinnon’s 1.31 points-per-game average is second only to … you guessed it: McDavid, at 1.35.

MacKinnon slips under the radar almost as seamlessly as he flies by defensemen for a few reasons:

  • The Avalanche haven’t been very great lately. MacKinnon’s efforts helped Colorado make the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, yet before that, the Avs suffered a three-season drought. The Avs have only made the playoffs twice since 2010-11, and they’ve only won one playoff series since 2005-06.

Even so, looking back at the past illuminates how special MacKinnon’s start has been. MacKinnon scored a goal in his first six games, something Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Milan Hejduk, and many other standout Avs failed to do:

Could he break more club records as he goes?

  • Maybe some of the reluctance to name MacKinnon among the best stems from the speedy center beginning his career as an effective scorer, yet not quite the guy people expected.

Through his first four seasons, MacKinnon only crossed the 60-point barrier once (63 on his way to a Calder Trophy in 2013-14), with his 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons inspiring real concern about his shooting ability. It’s one thing to have bad puckluck for a single season, but through the first four years of his career, MacKinnon shot under 10-percent on three occasions, and his peak was just a flat 10.0 during that rookie campaign.

Well, it’s not clear what precisely changed, yet it’s probably safe to dismiss those concerns already. MacKinnon probably would have hit 40 goals and 100 points if he played every game last season (finishing with 39 goals and 97 points in just 74 games), and he’s off to that red-hot start in 2018-19.

  • There were times when MacKinnon almost felt like comic relief in his apparently long-running Tim Horton’s commercials alongside Sidney Crosby.

Now? He’s still goofy, but in more of an “effective buddy cop movie character” sort of way.

His bond with Crosby and the Canadian coffee chain giant really peaked recently, as the two surprised members of Kenya’s senior men’s hockey team (more about that in this post):

Heartwarming stuff, right?

***

To recap: MacKinnon is a speedy center who’s scoring at a near-McDavidian-rate, and he’s building enough evidence that his quantum leap from 2017-18 could be the rule, rather than the exception.

With a rising winger in Rantanen, not to mention a productive, hard-nosed captain in Gabriel Landeskog, MacKinnon also pilots a top line that deserves consideration as the best trio in the NHL.

Oh yeah, MacKinnon also deserves serious consideration for having the best bargain contract in the NHL. Somehow, the Avalanche will receive five more prime-level years of MacKinnon’s services at the ridiculous rate of $6.3 million per season. That’s barely more than half of what McDavid’s getting — and McDavid is worth more than $12.5M.

So, MacKinnon’s on that rare McDavid plane of being lightning fast, yet still boasting the skill and hockey IQ to take advantage of that world-class speed. Maybe it took him more time to harness that, but this seems to be clear today.

It also seems like he’s kind of a goober, and can provide a salty quote here or there.

While it’s true that MacKinnon isn’t totally dismissed as a great player – he was a finalist, falling right behind Taylor Hall for the 2018 Hart Trophy – the point is that the latest Avalanche superstar is worthy of greater hype.

If nothing else, make sure you watch him play. Chances are, his name will pop up more often in “best in the league” conversations if you do.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Everything comes up Bruins on Saturday

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Honestly, Zdeno Chara signing another team-friendly contract would have been enough to make Saturday great for the Boston Bruins, alone. But the good times didn’t stop there.

Nope, the Bruins carried those positive vibes to the ice, as they pummeled the Florida Panthers by a score of 7-3. In managing that lopsided win, the Bruins became the second team in the Eastern Conference to clinch a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

A clinched spot and a big win to go with that Chara extension … that’s it, right? Nope, more fun stuff came when you zoomed into the specifics of the game.

For one thing, Chara celebrated his extended stay with the Bruins by scoring the 200th goal of his splendid NHL career, and it was a pretty nice one. (You can watch that milestone tally in the video above this post’s headline.)

Chara also had an assist in that win, so quite an all-around Saturday for “The Big Z.”

He wasn’t the only Bruins player to have a memorable evening, as Noel Acciari scored a goal and also threw punches at a gatling-gun-rhythm in quite the fight with MacKenzie Weegar:

*Infomercial voice* But wait, there’s more …

The Maple Leafs only managed a point against the struggling Rangers on Saturday, so now the Bruins hold a seven-point edge for the Atlantic’s second seed, and home-ice advantage in that looming first-round series.

While Toronto would be a tough opponent – warts and all – it must be tantalizing for the Bruins to picture what they might be capable of. After all, the B’s are starting to get healthier following a season of injury headaches, and they’re heating up considering their four-game winning streak.

They’re also an impressive 28-7-3 at home this season, so home ice could be pretty significant.

Yes, life was good for the Bruins on Saturday, and they aim to carry that over to most nights in April, and beyond.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

March Madness is theme of Hurricanes’ latest win celebration

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When you think of March Madness, it won’t take long for the Duke Blue Devils and North Carolina Tar Heels to come to your mind, especially if you’re living in the Carolinas. That apparently isn’t lost on the Carolina Hurricanes.

The team’s latest celebration evoked the NCAA’s beloved college basketball tournament, as the Hurricanes distanced themselves from the East’s bubble teams by thoroughly defeating (the very much West-bubble-dwelling) Minnesota Wild 5-1 on Saturday.

It was a great performance, with Teuvo Teravainen playing the role of MVP via one goal and two assists.

If Teravainen was the star, then call Trevor van Riemsdyk “The Human Hockey Highlight Reel,” as he showed some solid ups with his dunk during this fun celebration:

The Hurricanes are only going deeper into the “prop” stage of these win celebrations, and let me tell you: I’m all for it, and not just because it annoys the crustiest of crusty old hockey men.

Carolina now holds the first East wild-card spot with 89 points in 74 games played. The Montreal Canadiens are behind them in the second WC spot (87 points in 75 GP), making things only tenser for the struggling Blue Jackets, who remain out of the top eight with 84 points in 74 games played.

More and more, it looks like the Hurricanes will avoid another trip to hockey’s NIT (which would be the golf course, or maybe the hockey championship tournament overseas?), as their grip tightens on a playoff spot.

If things go really well, maybe the Hurricanes could celebrate a big win by cutting down the nets?

via Getty Images

Hey, they might as well file away ideas if they keep winning at this pace.

Jets dominate Predators, clinch playoff spot

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This is basically how the Winnipeg Jets probably dreamed of clinching a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

With Kyle Connor collecting a hat trick, the Jets firmly took control of first place in the Central Division by drubbing the Nashville Predators 5-0 on Saturday. This outcome doesn’t just clinch that playoff berth, it also gives Winnipeg a four-point edge on Nashville.

The Jets also hold a game in hand, as they have seven games remaining, while the Predators only play six more.

The most spectacular of Connor’s three goals came when he shimmied around P.K. Subban (someone who regularly gets booed in Winnipeg), and then Pekka Rinne had no chance to stop the young winger:

The Predators find themselves vulnerable to beginning the first round on the road, as the Blues aren’t far behind them for the second seed in the Central.

Connor actually also had an assist in this game (3G, 1A), as he’s showing some fascinating chemistry with Kevin Hayes, who joined him in having a four-point game (1G, 3A). Considering how dangerous the Mark ScheifeleBlake Wheeler duo tends to be, and the luxury wingers Winnipeg also has in Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers, a deadly combination of Hayes and Connor could be an absolute nightmare for opponents.

The Jets have been notably up-and-down at times this season, yet you could argue that it might be a matter of mild complacency. For the first time ever, this franchise is enjoying a glut where they can sort of mosey into the playoffs, so maybe they had been “struggling with prosperity” to some extent?

Well, as dangerous as it might be to supposedly “flip on the light switch,” the Jets are playing well enough that you might really start to hear some puns involving “taking off” and “getting fueled up” soon. That’s fair enough, if they fly as high most nights as they did on Saturday.

(Oh no, I’m doing it already, too.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

GM bashes Blue Jackets for not ‘playing like a team’

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Plenty of people are under pressure as the Columbus Blue Jackets find themselves in a panic-inducing spot: out of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as of this moment.

Yet, you have to believe that GM Jarmo Kekalainen’s seat is the hottest. After all, he’s the one who decided to not only keep Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, but also load up big-time during the trade deadline.

The thought was that keeping Bread and Bob would be “like getting trade deadline rentals” in the first place, so why not swing for the fences instead of giving up?

Well, instead of a deep run looking fully in view, the Blue Jackets instead are gazing at the standings, wondering if they might miss the postseason altogether. Since the trade deadline, the Blue Jackets have gone an unsettling 5-7-1, and Kekalainen told The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline that he doesn’t like what he’s seeing.

“We have to start playing like a team,” Kekalainen said (sub required). “Right now, we’re looking like a group of individuals who are pulling in different directions. We don’t look like a team.”

Is it John Tortorella’s fault that the Blue Jackets aren’t playing like a team?

That’s an argument for another day, but Kekalainen emphatically shot down any thought of Torts getting fired during the waning days of the 2018-19 season, telling Portzline that “if anybody can figure out how to turn this thing around, it is going to be [Tortorella].”

So, what might be the problem, then?

Well, unfortunately, those big holdovers aren’t delivering in a way that will please those worrying about Bobrovsky and Panarin leaving for nothing.

Panarin hasn’t been terrible, mind you, with a respectable eight points (though only one goal) in his last 13 games. And, as up-and-down as Bobrovsky’s been both this season and since the deadline, it’s not all Bob’s fault, as he’s dealing with some injury issues.

But those new additions really haven’t been able to take off. Matt Duchene seems to bring a hex with him everywhere he goes, and he’s only managed four points with Columbus. Most disturbingly, Pierre-Luc Dubois only has a single assist since the deadline.

It’s frustrating to linger on bad luck as a major reason for things going sideways, particularly for a team that’s been as frustrated in big games as the Blue Jackets have been. Still, it’s undeniable that bad bounces have been a factor.

Since the trade deadline, the Blue Jackets’ even-strength shooting percentage is just 5.23-percent, the second-worst number in the NHL (according to Natural Stat Trick). During an NHL season where teams are averaging close to three goals per game (2.82), the Blue Jackets have just 27 goals in 13 games, barely managing two per game (a bit less than 2.08).

As much as teams want to just will their way to goals and wins, sometimes it’s simply difficult to overcome cold streaks.

Perhaps the biggest mistake Kekalainen made was overrating his team/”group of individuals,” then? The underlying stats pointed to a Blue Jackets team that had mostly been middle-of-the-pack when it’s come to owning the puck and controlling high-danger chances, with a few key players like Panarin helping to make that key difference between victory and defeat.

Maybe making so many changes to the roster threw off delicate chemistry just enough to ruin that tightrope act? Could it be that Panarin actually … wanted to move on, to some extent, and feels a tad-bit dejected to have to play out the string?

Or, most likely, the bounces just haven’t been there, and such headaches have magnified issues, turning molehills into mountains?

Either way, it’s clear that things haven’t been coming easily for the Blue Jackets lately, and the pressure is getting to just about everyone — including the GM who put the team together.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.