The Minnesota Wild has quickly dropped two games in the best of seven series with the Colorado Avalanche. The catalyst in the so far in this series has been 18-year-old rookie phenom Nathan MacKinnon, who has skated through and around the Wild nearly at will. His dynamic speed and agility combined with otherworldly vision has been the difference as MacKinnon has seven points in his first two career playoff contests. It seems to be a nearly impossible task, but the Wild must keep him at bay if it wants any chance to come back in the series.
1. Meet MacKinnon before he enters the zone
This is far easier said than done. For the Wild players, it will take impeccable timing and near perfect positioning to keep MacKinnon from roasting them. Watch the first three goals scored by the Avalanche in game 2:
Jared Spurgeon was flat-out embarrassed on MacKinnon’s first goal. Giving him less gap and time to maneuver will force him to make faster decisions than he wants to. Mikko Koivu was caught flat-footed in no man’s land on the other two goals MacKinnon assisted on. He and the other Wild forwards need to be better positioned and prepared to put a body on MacKinnon in order to slow him down before he enters the Wild’s zone.
2. 3 P’s: Pressure, physicality and poise
Watching the opening two games, it’s no secret that MacKinnon, playing on a line with Paul Stastny and Gabriel Landeskog, thrives in open ice. Watch any of the seven goals that the rookie has had a part in and it’s obvious that he is most dangerous when he gets up to full speed. While the Wild may not be able to keep him completely off the score sheet, getting in his face as soon as he touches the puck is a good start to slowing his production. Mike Yeo should gather his more physical players (Matt Cooke, Nino Niederreiter) and tell them that when MacKinnon touches the puck, hit him immediately. Don’t give him a patch of free ice because that is where he has dismantled the Wild. The Wild defense need to be more vigilant when MacKinnon has the puck. Be alert of surroundings, cut off passing lanes, and hit him every chance you get. This is an 18-year-old kid playing against men; the physical play will wear him down.
3. Dump the puck and limit turnovers in the neutral zone
Get pucks deep. It is a simple formula that the Wild have followed almost every year since its existence as a franchise. While Yeo has emphasized carrying the puck into the offensive zone this year, it won’t work against the speedy Avalanche. Costly turnovers have led to great scoring chances for the opposition. Cross the red line, dump the puck, and go to work. It may not be the highlight reel hockey people enjoy watching, but the Minnesota Wild cannot go toe-to-toe with the speed of MacKinnon and the Avs. Forcing them to travel the entire length of the ice will limit opportunities.
Nathan MacKinnon has shocked the NHL and the Minnesota Wild so far with what he has done in the playoffs. He is well on his way to becoming the superstar that the Avs hoped when it took him No. 1 overall in the 2013 NHL Draft. This may be the first time the Wild sees MacKinnon in the playoffs, but it certainly won’t be the last.