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MacKinnon’s lack of goals in Final concerning as Avalanche let Lightning back in

TAMPA — The driver of this bus is encountering a couple of potholes and he’s doing his best to swerve around them and eventually power through them.

It’s not like Colorado Avalanche centre Nathan MacKinnon hasn’t been noticeable during the first three games of the Stanley Cup final, it’s quite the opposite.

MacKinnon hasn’t been stuck in neutral, nor has he been forced off the road to choose an alternate path.

But on a night where the Tampa Bay Lightning stars were shining bright, it’s impossible to ignore the fact MacKinnon has yet to score a goal so far in the fourth and final round.

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This isn’t a slight on his performance, far from it.

MacKinnon is going up against one of the top defensive centres in the NHL in Anthony Cirelli, a guy who is going to make a habit of being in the Selke discussion for years to come.

When you’re two wins away from claiming the first Stanley Cup of your career, it’s supposed to be hard.

And what we know about MacKinnon is that he’s completely dialled in, even if he’s not producing at his usual ridiculous rate.

Perhaps the most important thing for MacKinnon after the Avalanche lost Game 3 by a final score of 6-2 was how he handled the questions about his mini dry spell.

He was fully composed and showed no outward signs of frustration, another sign of progress for someone who cares so much that it’s occasionally knocked him off track in past playoffs.

The intensity was obvious, but this was not the look of a player beating himself up on the inside.

“I like the looks. Obviously, I’ve got to find the back of the net,” said MacKinnon, who had six shots on goal and 13 shot attempts on Monday night. “That’s my job.”

Scoring goals is definitely part of his job and he’s more than lived up to his end of the deal through 17 games, notching 11 goals and 20 points in 17 games — all the while handling the toughest defensive matchups with aplomb.

The thing with MacKinnon is that he could care less about how much he’s producing, as long as his team is having success.

The other part of the equation is that the Avalanche are not a one-line team that has to be carried by MacKinnon, though he remains an incredibly important player in that regard.

Earlier in the playoffs, Avalanche winger Mikko Rantanen went through a stretch where he was having trouble finding the back of the net, chipping in just one empty-net goal through the first two rounds.

Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar was quick to praise Rantanen for the looks he was getting and Rantanen himself spoke on the morning of Game 1 of the Western Conference Final about being happy with his play.

In case you’ve forgotten how Rantanen responded, it was by scoring in each game of the series sweep of the Oilers, and he’s carried that momentum into this series with the Lightning.

With that in mind, Rantanen was asked if he might offer a word of advice to MacKinnon, given that he endured a similar stretch.

“I don’t think I need to say (anything). He’s a good enough player. He knows what to do,” said Rantanen. “He’s playing well and he’s creating chances for other guys and he’s had some chances too in all of the three games. We’ve all been there. At this point in the year, you try to do everything to help the team win. He’s playing well. Everybody has just got to stay with it. You can’t be frustrated at this point of the year.”

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Bednar didn’t sound the least bit worried about MacKinnon when asked about him at the podium, noting that he’s much better equipped to handle the lull in production.

“The last thing you want to do is get frustrated, especially if you’re getting opportunities. Eventually they come. You don’t have any choice as a player but to stick with it,” the coach said. “You know you’re doing the right things, you’re creating chances, you’re helping your linemates create chances. You just have to stick with it and keep going. Eventually you’ll break through.”

One of the things that stood out about the Avalanche’s team game on Monday was that they didn’t spend nearly as much time playing at hyper speed.

The tenacious forecheck wasn’t quite as effective and didn’t generate nearly as many turnovers as in the first two games.

On the defensive side, the Avalanche weren’t nearly as crisp either and for the first time in the series, the Lightning got to the net and created plenty of Grade A opportunities, scoring three of the six goals from the slot.

The Avalanche are now 14-3 in these playoffs and after the two prior losses, they responded with terrific efforts, winning both of those games.

That’s a trend they’d like to continue and they understand the corrections required to make that happen.

“Nothing that we haven’t done all year,” said Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog. “When you win, you don’t celebrate too much and if you lose, you don’t sulk too much either. You stay even keel. We’ll be back and we’ll be fine. I’ve got confidence in our group. We’ll bounce back and we’ll have a good Game 4.”

“They played with a little bit more desperation,” said Avalanche defenceman Josh Manson. “I thought we had a pretty good start but you’ve got to be able to clean up some of the things we didn’t do well. We kind of gave them life.

“You can’t be frustrated about it. They lost 7-0 (in Game 2). You wipe the slate clean. You come out the next night. That’s how championship teams play and that’s what we’re going to do.”

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The other development in the game was the Lightning firing five goals on 22 shots on goal past Avalanche goalie Darcy Kuemper, leading to an early hook at 11:15 of the second period.

This wasn’t a true mercy pull, but nobody was pointing fingers at Kuemper as the reason the Avalanche were outclassed in this game either.

There is no goalie controversy to see here and you can expect Kuemper back in goal for Game 4.

“Listen, he’s allowed to have bad nights too. That’s the way that it is,” said Landeskog. “I wouldn’t hang him out to dry on any of those. Like I said, defensively as a five-man unit out there, we need better. We kind of left him alone on a few of those and would like to change that.”

With the Avalanche still leading the series 2-1 going into Wednesday’s Game 4 at Amalie Arena, every player that spoke talked about the importance of having a short memory.

This wasn’t just message tracking, though showing confidence in this situation against the two-time defending champions is always important.

For a team that’s endured as much emotional toll during the last three Stanley Cup playoffs, you can be sure they would have gladly signed up to be in this position when the series began.

Off nights happen, but they certainly don’t ensure that this confident and determined group is about to come off the rails with one loss.

“It’s the Stanley Cup Final. We’re not expecting a sweep,” said MacKinnon. “This is fun. This is awesome. Good or bad, we’re not going to trade our spot with anyone. We’ve waited a long time for this.

“We’re playing the best right now. We’re playing the best team, they’ve won back to back. We knew they were too proud to go away. We still feel good. We feel good about our team, top to bottom.” 

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