2022 Stanley Cup Final – How Nathan MacKinnon can ride out a drought

TAMPA, Fla. – It took Nathan MacKinnon years to get to this place. And we’re not just talking about the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Colorado Avalanche superstar is mired in a mini-scoring drought, with zero goals and two assists in three Cup Finals games against the Tampa Bay Lightning. He was knocked off the scoresheet entirely in Colorado’s 6-2 thrashing by the Lightning in Game 3.

The former MacKinnon reportedly cursed his lack of production, dangerously overcompensated and ended up hurting his team more. This MacKinnon has grown enough to recognize he can’t do it all and is still striving to provide more offensive punch in Game 4 on Wednesday.

“Obviously I want to score goals, but I have to do my job there,” MacKinnon said after Monday’s loss. “[I have to] playing really good defense, creating for my teammates, forechecking, every little thing. Stay aggressive and shoot the puck. I feel like they’re going to come in; I just have to trust myself. That’s all I can really do at this point. No time to doubt… I need to find a few more ways, but other than that, stick with it.”

Colorado is counting on MacKinnon to find its way. And why wouldn’t it be? MacKinnon was no slouch in those playoffs, posting 11 goals and 20 points in 17 games with a plus-11 differential in nearly 21 minutes of ice time per game. He did it all without trying to carry Colorado on his own, a mind-shifting coach Jared Bednar has repeatedly praised.

“He understands better … that the other guys play a big part in the success of our team,” Bednar said after the first game. “It doesn’t always have to come back to him. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t put a lot of weight on his own shoulders. He does. He knows he has to drive the bus, but he’s willing to help in other ways and he’s been really good [at that] and help the guys around him become better players.”

MacKinnon accomplished this while facing high profile matchups at every level. Bednar didn’t hesitate to put MacKinnon’s unit — featuring Gabriel Landeskog and Valeri Nichushkin — against anyone, including Tampa Bay’s tough line of control centered by Anthony Cirelli.

Colorado easily got the better of Cirelli’s group at home. And early in Game 3, MacKinnon kicked Nichushkin for a recalled goal following an offside challenge; if he had resisted, the momentum could have played a part in how the game went.

The point – for Bednar anyway – is that MacKinnon handled his assignments well. So even when the coach said after Game 3 that MacKinnon could have been “much better” that night, that wasn’t a comment on his star’s overall contributions. Yes, the best Avalanche players have to be at their best. Is that it goes beyond goals and assists.

“It’s a group of five on the ice,” Bednar said Tuesday. “The fact that [MacKinnon’s] not on the scoresheet in large numbers every night [with] a lot of production, if you look at what his teammates are doing, what the defensemen are doing on the ice when he’s there, they’re playing really well. I think they drive the game. It’s a matter of time for him. I don’t think he’s squeezing it or anything right now. I think he is playing his game. He is confident and our team is convinced that if he continues on this path, he will be rewarded.”

MacKinnon won’t leave anything to chance, however. When Colorado held an optional practice Tuesday, MacKinnon was the first man on the ice. During the team’s 30-minute session, MacKinnon did some shooting work with JT Compher in a game-specific drill. The setup had one guy holding his stick while the other went for a wrist shot on the net, simulating how Lightning skaters get their own sticks into the shooting lanes and block shots.

Rather than feeling defeated, MacKinnon is simply working to fix the problem. Tampa Bay has the fifth-highest blocks per 60 minutes (16.97) of any playoff team this year, and is at 23.81 per 60 in the Cup Final (compared to 15.54 by the Avalanche). So if getting around that is the challenge, MacKinnon is up for it.

“The last thing you want to do is get frustrated, especially if you have opportunities,” Bednar said. “Eventually they come. You have no choice as a player but to stick with it. You know you’re doing the right things. You create chances, you help your teammates create chances. You don’t Just stick with it and keep going. You’ll break through eventually.

Mikko Rantanen can understand where MacKinnon is better than anyone. He led the Avalanche in the regular season with 36 goals and 92 points, only to see his production stagnate at one goal (an empty net) in Colorado’s first 10 playoff games.

It wasn’t an ideal start as Rantanen made a hasty turnaround, scoring four goals in four games in the Western Conference Finals sweep in Edmonton, and he’s been abuzz ever since. Rantanen predicts MacKinnon will make a similar turnaround.

“I don’t think I need to say [anything]”, Rantanen said. “He’s a pretty good player. He knows what to do. He’s playing well and he’s creating chances for the other guys, and he’s had chances in all three games as well. We have all been there. At this time of year, you try to do everything to help the team win. He plays well. Everyone has to stick with it.”

Despite the poor result in Game 3, Colorado has a series advantage with a chance to share that road trip in Game 4. That would mean returning to Denver and potentially hoisting the Cup at home in Game 5 on Friday.

It doesn’t matter then how many goals MacKinnon has scored – or not – along the way. The ultimate goal requires a team effort.

“It’s great. Good or bad, we’re not going to trade places with anyone,” MacKinnon said after Game 3. [Cups]. We knew they were too proud to leave. We always feel good. We feel good in our team, top to bottom.”

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