DENVER — Speedy Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon took his turn at the wheel “driving the bus.”
That’s his description of top players buckling into the driver’s seat and going full throttle this time of year to lead their team. The “No. 29 bus” was cruising along, too, as MacKinnon took the Avalanche for quite a ride in Game 1 against Nashville, scoring twice during a 7-2 win.
“He is a really good bus driver,” coach Jared Bednar cracked.
The same goes for Pittsburgh standout Evgeni Malkin, who deflected in a goal during the third overtime in a 4-3 win over the New York Rangers. T.J. Oshie’s third-period score had the Washington Capitals riding high in a 4-2 win over the top-seeded Florida Panthers in Game 1.
“Doesn’t matter what your depth is, your stars still have to be your best players,” said Bednar, whose team hosts the Predators in Game 2 on Thursday night. “That’s how you win.”
Bednar’s got quite a few that can take command. There’s MacKinnon, who raised his playoff points per game average to 1.41. That trails only Wayne Gretzky (1.84) and Mario Lemieux (1.61), with a minimum of 40 games.
There’s defenseman Cale Makar, who had three points, including a score, in Colorado’s explosive five-goal first period. And Mikko Rantanen, who had three assists. And captain Gabriel Landeskog, who returned to the ice for the first time since knee surgery in March and delivered a goal and an assist.
There are no brakes for this fast-paced Avalanche squad.
“We wanted to get pucks to the net quick,” Makar said. “We did that.”
For the Penguins and the Rangers, it’s all about rest and recovery. Because that was a lot of hockey before Malkin solved Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who had a star turn of his own with 79 saves — second-best in the long history of the NHL playoffs.
It was Malkin’s second overtime playoff goal. His last one was 13 years ago in Game 5 of the conference semifinals. His 13 career game-winning postseason goals are just one shy of matching Jaromir Jagr for the most in franchise history, according to NHL Stats.
Speaking of Backstrom, he delivered the pass to Oshie — and then the good news.
“Didn’t see it go in,” Oshie said. “He had to come tell me that we scored.”
Washington might have a big hole in the lineup to replace Thursday. Tom Wilson, who scored the Capitals’ first goal of Game 1 but logged less than 2 minutes of ice time, will be a game-time decision with a lower-body injury, coach Peter Laviolette said.
“You can’t replace Tom, especially in the playoffs,” Oshie said. “He is one of our most important players.”