Nathan MacKinnon on breakout season, hitting 40 goals (PHT Q&A)

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Nathan MacKinnon may never be the most famous hockey player from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia but coming in second to Sidney Crosby isn’t so bad. 

The Colorado Avalanche star met the Pittsburgh Penguins captain through trainer Andy O’Brien when he was 15. Through workouts back home and off-season skating, the two have become good pals. 

“We have a good thing going,” MacKinnon said. “We push each other. He makes me a lot better, he pushes me hard.”

Their friendship has resulted in a friendly rivalry and new Tim Hortons commercials every year.

As part of one the best lines in hockey this season, MacKinnon is tied for third in NHL scoring with nine goals and 18 points. One of his linemates, Gabriel Landeskog, is tied for the league lead in goals scored with 11. Mikko Rantanen? Well, he’s only the current Art Ross Trophy leader with 21 points.

That top line for the Avalanche just picked up where they left off last season that saw the 23-year-old MacKinnon get a June trip to Las Vegas as one of the three Hart Trophy finalists.

We spoke with MacKinnon earlier this season about his breakout year, playing for Jared Bednar, hitting 40 goals and more.

Enjoy.

Q. Two things happened last year. One was you exploded, and two, the Avalanche yo-yo’d back up into the playoffs. Where did the personal turnaround come from?

MACKINNON: “I just think it was experience. It was my fifth year in the league and I just feel I was ready to be an elite player and I hope I can stay there. I just tried to figure out the — I know it’s cliché — but the highs and lows, it’s a real thing. It’s a long season, there’s so many games. You can definitely ride highs and get really low as well. But I feel like I’m in the middle now, I’m not satisfied and I’m not too down on myself at the same time.”

Q. Was there something specific in your game that changed? Your skating couldn’t possibly get better, but were there other things that might have physically changed in your game?

MACKINNON: Not physically, just mentally. I just wanted to be really aggressive on the ice and I wouldn’t say take risks, but just be aggressive and assert myself in the game and stay positive. That’s pretty much it. I think my physical tools might have gotten a little bit better, but nothing drastic. 

Q. How do you insert yourself more into a game? How do you be more aggressive?

MACKINNON:  “I just think by shooting more, having more of a selfish attitude with the puck and taking it yourself. It might be throwing ahead or just being aggressive in everything you do on the ice is my mentality.”

Q. What makes Jared Bednar a good coach?

MACKINNON: “Well, he’s very personable. He’s a great dude, he’s very easy to talk to. He’s kind of the new style of coach, I think, just very relatable, a player’s coach, and lets you play. But you know he also can come down on you a little bit, but ‘Bedsy’s’ a great guy.”

Q. You were real close to 40 goals last season. Do 40 goals matter? Do you still look at these milestones or are you just playing?

MACKINNON: “I mean it’s tough. It would’ve been cool to get 40 and 100 or whatever it was, but just didn’t happen. I’d be lying, I’d love to get there one day, but I think 50’s a big milestone, not 40.”

MORE: Mikko Rantanen turning into ‘driving force’ for Avalanche

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.