Wearing the 1,000-yard stare of a defeated man, Nathan MacKinnon refused to budge from the Avalanche bench as another season ended with him no closer to hoisting the Stanley Cup.
The world’s best hockey player watched teammates surrender the lead three times before losing 5-4 in overtime against Dallas. Force-fed another bitter Game 7 pill to choke down, Kid MacK sat stone cold, processing the loss, his eyes raging with 1,000 what-ifs and 1,000 regrets that lingered after the sudden death of a championship dream.
“In terms of assessing our team, I don’t think we should change anything,” MacKinnon insisted Friday, moments after the Avs were bounced from the NHL bubble far sooner than they expected. “If we have the exact same team next year, I think we can win it next year.”
Sorry, Kid. But this old dog respectfully disagrees with your assessment.
Colorado can’t win a championship unless Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic gets MacKinnon more help. And the place to start is between the pipes.
There’s nothing wrong with Philipp Grubauer or Pavel Francouz, except neither goalie is quite reliable enough to win the 16 playoff games required to secure a championship.
I admire the faith MacKinnon, who produced a Gretzky-esque 25 points in 15 postseason games, showed for his boys in the room, by exhibiting grace in defeat.
MacKinnon is a generational talent, as worthy as Sidney Crosby or Sakic to have his name engraved on the Cup. And that’s precisely why this is a talent it would be a crying shame for the Avs to waste.
“We wanted to win it this year,” right winger Mikko Rantanen said. “But it’s too late now.”
In 2020, a year all of us hope to never see anything like again, so many stories both great and small are told of perseverance, because merely getting through it all sometimes seems like victory enough.
But here’s the rub. In sports, as in life, biding time until next year only invites regret.
Yes, coach Jared Bednar was justifiably proud of a Colorado team that refused to quit despite losing seven — count ‘em — seven key players to injury, from captain Gabe Landeskog to defenseman Erik Johnson and both of top its goalies, leaving brave third-stringer Michael Hutchinson to take the loss in Game 7.
But as Bednar walked in the dressing room after a goal by unlikely Dallas hero Joel Kiviranta scored 7 minutes, 24 seconds, into overtime against a gassed Colorado defense, the coach saw the no-excuses truth.
“We set out at the start of the year with the goal to win the Stanley Cup, and we didn’t achieve it,” Bednar said.
“We can make any excuses we want: injuries, this, that or the other. Our goal was our goal. And we didn’t accomplish it. So it hurts. It (stinks). I looked at our guys’ faces after the game, I could see their disappointment.”
Despite lighting the lamp with crazy pinball action in what will be recorded as the sixth highest-scoring playoff series in NHL history, the Avs were a disturbingly inept 4-of-32 on the power play. Even worse: Colorado surrendered 28 goals to Dallas
“We just couldn’t keep the puck out of our net this series,” MacKinnon said.
The good news: MacK is still a Kid. He celebrated his 25th birthday in the bubble Sept. 1.
Sakic did not win the Cup until after his 26th birthday — and also not until after the Avalanche traded for world-class goalie Patrick Roy.
Get to work, Joe.
In the year when the NHL, like everything else in sports and life, has been challenged to the max by COVID-19, the coming months will be as unusual as the unwelcome four-month hiatus the league took before building a bubble in two Canadian cities to resume play.
“I don’t even know,” MacKinnon confessed, “when next season starts.”
Christmas? Maybe. But don’t get your hopes up.
In one important regard, uncertainty makes MacK like the rest of us in 2020. He’s trucking so hard with every ounce of energy toward tomorrow that looking beyond the next twist in the road is out of the question.
But here’s a glimpse: The pandemic, which is costing the NHL millions merely to stage this tourney, will tempt many franchises to trim payroll rather than spend in free agency. It figures to be a buyer’s market.
So there’s a real possibility strong goalies will be available. Here are two proven net-minders that catch my eye:
At age 29, Robin Lehner has become the goalie Las Vegas trusts more than Marc-Andre Fleury, a three-time Stanley Cup champion. And how much does Corey Crawford, who has ridden in two victory parades through downtown Chicago, have in the tank at age 35?
Maybe there’s a goalie Sakic likes better, and perhaps he could use some of the organization’s talent stockpile to trade for an all-star between the pipes.
But please don’t tell me the Avs are going to stand pat, trusting Lady Luck will so kind as to let MacKinnon do all the heavy lifting of winning a Cup by himself.