NHL

Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar, in sync, makes magic for the Avalanche

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar were too much for the Predators in the first two games of their Stanley Cup playoff series. The Avalanche’s superstar center and all-world defenseman combined for five goals and nine points — more than Nashville’s entire team in 7-2 and 2-1 Avs wins at Ball Arena.

If this continues, the right-shot M&M combination is bound to lead Colorado wherever it wants to go.

Thing is, the Avs have so much more behind them. This team still has plenty of firepower even if the M&M boys have an off night or two. But don’t expect that. MacKinnon, 26, lives for this time of the year, and Makar, 23, is taking notes.

“He lives to compete, and it’s awesome,” Makar said of MacKinnon after Game 2, which saw Makar and MacKinnon both score and combine for 20 shots — just six shy of the Preds’ entire team. “Even before our first game, you could see it in the morning skate, just how amped up he was.”

MacKinnon had two goals and three points in Game 1 to surpass 70 points in 51 career playoff games. That’s tied for the fifth-quickest in NHL history behind Hockey Hall of Famers Wayne Gretzky (29 games), Mario Lemieux (36), Jari Kurri (49) and Joe Sakic (50).

Following his goal in Game 2, MacKinnon’s postseason points increased to 73 in 52 games, the third-highest points average (1.40) in league history (minimum 40 games) behind Gretzky (1.84) and Lemieux (1.61).

“He’s a driving force on our team, and it was awesome to see him get that first one (in Game 2),” Makar said. “I feel like the boys just, in general, built off of that the whole night. So he definitely started it off and continued it for us.

“He’s definitely a different animal in the playoffs and that’s why he’s probably the best player in the world.”

Makar, who got my No. 1 vote for the Norris Trophy, is equally as important to the Avs from the back end. His 12 shots in Game 2 were the most by a Colorado player — regardless of position — in club history.

You wouldn’t be surprised if MacKinnon had 12 shots in a game. In fact, he had 12 on Jan. 8 in a 5-4 overtime win over Toronto. And he had a career-high 14 on Feb. 12 in a 6-3 win over Winnipeg.

But a defenseman producing 12 shots? That’s Bobby Orr-type stuff.

“He’s trying to be a difference-maker every time he steps on the ice,” Avs coach Jared Bednar said. “I don’t know what else to say. I mean, I’ve been talking about it for two years.”

The Preds have a world-class blueliner too. Roman Josi might edge out Makar for the Norris Trophy. Or visa versa. There’s little doubt they will finish first and second for the award, which is voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers Association.

Nashville coach John Hynes said this about Makar: “He does things as a defenseman, that offensively, a lot of other players can’t do. He’s got a great shot. He finds shot lanes. He’s really mobile at the offensive blue line. Sometimes he catches a puck and goes inside and sometimes it’s outside. Because of his quickness, movement and lateral ability, he finds a way to get a lot of shots through. He’s an excellent player, that’s for sure.”

Every Stanley Cup champion needs a great center and an equally great defenseman. Tampa Bay had that the last two years with Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman. St. Louis had it in 2019 with Ryan O’Reilly and Alex Pietrangelo. And Washington had Evgeny Kuznetsov and John Carlson in 2018.

MacKinnon and Makar may be next on that list.

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