Minute-munching MacKinnon makes MVP case with uptick in physical play
"He's driving us right now," said Avalanche defenceman Cale Makar. "Every single night he's showing up ... It's definitely probably the best stretch I've seen [from] him so far."
High praise considering how good MacKinnon has been during his 11-year run in the NHL.
"I feel like the big thing for him right now is physicality," said Makar. "He's just attacking plays and attacking the net and finding those open areas kind of like [Auston] Matthews has been."
"There's maybe a touch more of that in his game," said coach Jared Bednar. "It's always been there. Like, he's been a pretty heavy competitor for us for years, but this year it's the consistency. It's every game."
MacKinnon is also logging 22 minutes and 59 seconds minutes a night, which is second among NHL forwards behind only linemate Mikko Rantanen.
"The conditioning side of it, the preparation side of it, which has always been there, is just reaching new heights," raved Bednar. "It's allowing him to play at a very high level on a nightly basis and that preparation is not just physical, it's mental as well."
"They are leaning on him more than ever," observed Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe. "He played 30 minutes the other night. Their top guys are carrying the mail for them in lots of ways. Certainly, he is leading the way."
MacKinnon's average ice time is up 40 seconds from last year. His career high mark of 22:05 per game was set during the 2018-19 season.
"You don't really know how much you're playing," he insisted. "I just go when Bedsy tells me to go. It's my job to be ready for anything. The preparation starts right after each game. It doesn't start today. If it did, I wouldn't be playing as much as I am."
MacKinnon has skated a league-leading 156.93 miles this season, which is the equivalent of nearly six marathons
"He can play big minutes and he plays hard," said Rantanen. "He's hard to handle."
Does the 28-year-old feel like he's unlocked a new level?
"I'm not sure," MacKinnon said. "Last year was a solid year. This year I'm always trying to get better. I think a lot of guys are having great years on our team. Definitely getting a lot bounces and I'll have to enjoy it while it lasts."
MacKinnon's shooting percentage is 11.6, which is basically the same as last season.
"Once he reaches a bar, he's going to raise the bar again and try to push towards it again," Bednar said. "That's the competitor in him and the perfectionist in himself."
Colorado's coach suggested that MacKinnon is likely "satisfied" with his first-half performance.
"All he thinks about is winning and winning long-term," Bednar added. "I'd say that until that's accomplished he's not going to be too happy."
This may be the year when the Nova Scotia native wins the Hart Trophy. He's been a finalist three times.
"I feel like he's been our consistent driving force through the whole thing," Makar said. "If I was one of the voters right now I'd be all over him ... I feel like he's the best forward this year. I think this is his year for all the awards and stuff like that. He's been pretty unreal."
The Avalanche entered Saturday's game with the fourth most points in the NHL.
MacKinnon believes Makar is closing in on another Norris Trophy as the game's top blueliner.
"He's the best defenceman in the world and I don't think it's close," MacKinnon said. "He's having a great year and will probably add another Norris to his trophy case."
The folks in Vancouver may not agree. Canuck Quinn Hughes leads all NHL defencemen with 51 points in 42 games. Makar does have more points per game (1.3) with 48 in 37 outings.
"My game, I feel like it's been pretty average, to be completely honest with you," Makar said. "It's just sometimes the way the season goes. I think a lot of it just goes down to maybe finding my legs every night and making sure that I start creating things more with my legs."
But MacKinnon thinks Makar is creating quite a bit already.
"The break outs are a lot of fun," he said. "Sometimes I see him winding up and I just head out of the zone. I know he's going to get it out clean."
The Leafs will certainly be on high alert whenever the Calgary native is on the ice.
"You just can't ever take it for granted that he's standing up at the point or coming out of their end that he's not leading the rush or joining the rush," said centre John Tavares. "He can be a little bit of a rover at times or a lot of the time. His ability to generate speed and make plays is as elite as anybody in the league."
Keefe is quick to highlight the chemistry between Makar and partner Devon Toews.
"Toews has the ability to make his own plays and finish his own plays but also, from what I see, he has a great presence of mind to cover and pick his spots well knowing that Makar is going to be really aggressive," Keefe said. "They have a great comfort playing together for a long time and having success together as a pair and as a team. It is certainly a good match. It is one where pucks are hard to come by when those guys are out there."
MacKinnon and Makar are dynamic, but the game's leading goal scorer plays for the Leafs. Matthews added two to his total during Thursday's 4-3 overtime loss to the New York Islanders.
"He's been doing it his whole career so it's nothing new, but he looks awesome this year," said MacKinnon. "I haven't seen a ton of Leafs games, but every time I turn it on he seems to have two or three."
Matthews already has 11 multi-goal games this season. He only had five last year.
"When you don't give him much time and space, he's still going to find an opportunity to shoot it or get himself in the right spot to score goals," Makar noted. "It's just going to be reiterating staying on him."
Matthews has an incredible shot, which is his calling card, but the sniper from Scottsdale, Arizona showed off some soft hands in front of the net in New York.
"He's got some of the best hands in the world," Tavares said. "Just his ability to sense what's needed to give him a chance to score is obviously extremely impressive and why he's on such a great tear."
Matthews leads the NHL with 33 goals with 24 coming at even strength. The chemistry between Matthews, Mitch Marner and Matthews Knies is evident.
"That line is doing a really nice job of checking the puck back in the offensive zone, sustaining O-zone time, and if you allow them to do that they'll eventually find time and space to put the puck to the net," Bednar said. "They've been gritty around the net so finding different ways to score as a group. You got to check them hard and make sure you're spending as little time as possible in the D-zone."
Matthews and Marner were not made available to the media on Saturday morning.
Martin Jones will make a seventh straight start for the Leafs on Saturday.
"He has handled it well," Keefe said of the 34-year-old's workload. "We have talked a lot about his experience. He has played a lot in the league at different times throughout his career. He didn't play much in the first half of the season for either us or the Marlies. I think he is happy to be in a regular rhythm."
"I'm alright," Jones stressed after Thursday's loss. "I'm feeling good."
Jones did start on consecutive days last week during the California trip, but will finally get a game off on Sunday when the Leafs host the Detroit Red Wings.
"Jones won't play tomorrow," Keefe confirmed. "That would be overdoing it. Even though it is a back-to-back at home, he has played a lot this week already. We are going to need another guy tomorrow, but let's focus on today."
Ilya Samsonov, who has struggled this season, has not played since Dec. 29.
Dennis Hildeby posted a shutout for the Toronto Marlies on Friday, but the 22-year-old has never played in the NHL.
Alexandar Georgiev starts for the Avalanche on Saturday.
Despite all the offensive talent that will be on then ice on Saturday both teams are actually expecting a tight-checking affair.
"They've been defending really well at least in the recent past," said Bednar. "Looking at their last 10 games or so, it's tough to create scoring chances against these guys."
The Leafs allowed just 2.33 goals against in their last nine games, which is fifth overall since Dec. 22.
The Avalanche are third in goals scored per game (3.64) this season.
"Coming off a Cup a couple years ago, they're playing the same way," said defenceman Morgan Rielly. "They're playing with lots of speed, lots of skill. They're very dangerous offensively and they manage to keep it tight. They’re very aggressive defensively so it's a challenge and I think our group's in a good place. I think we’re ready for it. We expect to be very competitive tonight."
The Leafs are fourth in goals per game (3.56).
"They have some of the best forwards in the league," said MacKinnon. "We're missing some guys so we're going to have to be really solid defensively, not take too many risks and hopefully win a low-scoring event here tonight."
The Avalanche beat the Leafs 2-1 in a shootout during their last trip to Toronto on March 15, 2023.
The Leafs fell in overtime on Thursday night. Jake McCabe got the nod to start the extra frame alongside Matthews and Marner instead of Rielly.
"It is a bit of a feel and a bit of a historic thing," Keefe explained. "We have lost a lot of games in the first minute historically with Matthews, Marner, and Rielly together. That is something. You have [William] Nylander coming next, and you have him paired with Rielly in the second group. It is intriguing and works for us."
But Nylander never got a chance on Thursday. McCabe iced the puck on the first shift and his man, Mathew Barzal, scored the game-winner off of the ensuing faceoff.
Keefe revealed that assistant coach Mike Van Ryn, who runs the defence, tabbed McCabe as the best option to start overtime.
"You are hoping to get through the first bit and then you can get into your lineup," Keefe said. "It didn't work out the other night. Some of it is historic and some of the things you have been through. Some of it is trying to spread it out a little bit."
The Leafs are now 4-7 in games decided in overtime this season.
Former Islanders captain Tavares continued to hear boos every time he touched the puck on Thursday.
"You recognize that it's there," he said. "That stuff is out of my control. It is what it is. I don't play there any more. They're obviously going to cheer for their team. You hear it, but you just try and go out there and play and once the game gets rolling, you get in the flow of things, and you just focus on what's between the whistles, what's in between the boards."
Tavares has now played eight games in Long Island since spurning the team that drafted him first overall in free agency.
"I'm sure there's mixed feelings every time he does come," Keefe told TSN before Thursday's game. "The fans are hard on him, of course, but I think that's quite flattering, the fact after all these years they still care about him enough to do that."
The coach has noticed Tavares always has a big group of people waiting to talk to him after every game on Long Island.
"Going back there is always special for me because the organization and Long Island, the place, made a major impact on me as a player and a person," Tavares said. "It brings back a lot of memories."
Lines at Leafs skate on Saturday:
Knies - Matthews - Marner
Bertuzzi - Tavares - Nylander
Holmberg - Domi - Jarnkrok
McMann - Kampf - Gregor
Rielly - Brodie
Benoit - McCabe
Giordano - Liljegren
Lagesson - Timmins