TAMPA, Fla. (AP)Andrew Cogliano shouted at Nathan MacKinnon in the midst of the Colorado Avalanche’s Stanley Cup celebration.
”87!” he bellowed.
It was a reference to the final two numbers of MacKinnon’s hotel room, which Colorado’s star forward thought was a great omen when he checked in ahead of Sunday night’s Game 6 in Tampa. Sidney Crosby, like MacKinnon a native of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, is known for being No. 87.
Now MacKinnon is a Stanley Cup champion, just like Crosby.
”We just felt like it was fate,” MacKinnon said. ”We just knew we were going to win when I got that room number.”
Fate didn’t help MacKinnon sneak a perfect shot past 2021 playoff MVP Andrei Vasilevskiy for Colorado’s first goal or help him set up Artturi Lehkonen for the second. And fate didn’t make him slide his body in front of shots to keep them from getting to the net or take a big hit from Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos that knocked him to the ice.
No, it was skill and sheer determination for a player seeking a championship that had eluded him for several years amid playoff disappointments. He was at his best in the Cup-clinching 2-1 victory Sunday night. After a relatively quiet performance in the series until that point, MacKinnon picked the perfect time to be a difference-maker and drove the bus for the Avalanche.
General manager Joe Sakic, who drafted MacKinnon with the first pick in 2013, said this means everything to his first-line center.
”He’s one of the best players in the world, and he wanted this more than anyone, and you can tell,” Sakic said. ”He’s open about it how much he wants to win, and I was really proud for him. He’s been tremendous right from when he started as a rookie. He’s gotten better and better every year. A dynamic player, and you saw it today. He checked as hard as when he had the puck.”
MacKinnon at times played like a man possessed during this run, leading the Avalanche with 13 goals, tied for the playoff lead.
”The maturity of his game over the last couple of seasons and in going through what we went through in the playoffs last year has kind of driven him to a different point this year,” coach Jared Bednar said. ”He has a better understanding and a growing understanding of everything that’s happening around him and that other guys play an important role in our team’s success and it doesn’t have to always just come back on him.”
MacKinnon blazed and bulldozed through and dangled around plenty of opponents to win his first championship, adding a goal in the title-clinching win.
”Nate’s like a bull in a china shop,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper, whose team came two victories away from the NHL’s first three-peat since in the early 1980s. ”He plays the power game. He’s kind of got that double-edged sword because he’s really fast and he’s really strong, so it’s hard to neutralize him when you really let him go.”
The Avalanche unleashed MacKinnon on Nashville, St. Louis and Edmonton before that – sweeping the Predators in the first round and the Oilers in the Western Conference final sandwiched around beating the rival Blues in six. And then came the Lightning, who were vanquished in a terrific series that saw four one-goal games (two won by Colorado in overtime) and a blowout win for each team.
At the end, Colorado had the Cup and MacKinnon this time didn’t have to answer questions about what went wrong or whether he’d need to change his approach to win in the playoffs.
Instead of doing that, MacKinnon ratcheted up his game. Even before he scored his first goal of the final, he danced around defenders with moves more reminiscent of video game hockey than real life.
Facing noted Tampa Bay shutdown center Anthony Cirelli in the final, MacKinnon was more than up to the challenge.
”He embraces some of those matchups,” Bednar said. ”Nate, he’s not afraid or intimidated to go against anybody.”
As a result, MacKinnon now trails Crosby by two Stanley Cup titles, giving the 26-year-old even more to shoot for beyond this championship.
”It’s crazy,” MacKinnon said. ”Can’t wait to hug my family. It’s hard to describe. I didn’t really know what it would be like to actually win it, just seeing all these warriors battle, it just feels unbelievable.”
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
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