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Paul Klee: Hate to ask for more, but it's on Nathan MacKinnon and Colorado's top line to lead Avalanche into NHL playoffs

By: Paul Klee
March 29, 2018 Updated: March 29, 2018 at 8:00 pm
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Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon is congratulated by teammates on the bench after scoring a goal against the Detroit Red Wings during the second period of an NHL hockey game on Sunday, March 18, 2018, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

DENVER — At some point along the way the Avs crossed a threshold. They crossed a bunch, actually, from sob story to feel-good story to where they are now, at the tail end of a sweet season that nobody saw coming.

Call it the “ouch, this is going to hurt if the playoffs don’t happen” story.

But if the arrival of expectations has them freaking out, the Avs aren’t showing it. Thursday at Gabriel Landeskog’s locker, I asked the captain where he expected these Avs would be situated as March rolled into April. First came the playerspeak answer: “I don't know. That's a good question. I always believe. I always believe we have a chance. But it’s such a long season ...”

Then came the heartfelt answer, with a shrug that suggested he prefers to embrace the opportunity: “One point out with five games to go? And it’s all in our own hands as well. We’re not going to look for other teams to do us any favors. We’re just going to go out and take care of business.”

That's the spirit. When the Avs have been at their best — from the 10-game winning streak to consecutive blowouts of the rival Minnesota Wild — they have flourished behind an element of surprise: These pushovers had 48 points last season. How are they beating us 3-0 in the second period?

Really, the first time any type of frustration has been visible was over the past week, when the scoring spout dripped dry. Four goals in four games? That won't cut it. And you can see from their body language, particularly with Nathan MacKinnon, this bunch is under pressure for the first time.

"You don't want to scare some of these kids off by telling them how important these games are," said Landeskog, 25.

It's a big deal for the Avs to make the playoffs, not only because weird things happen in the NHL playoffs, but also to hasten the development of one of the league's youngest rosters. Ask the Nuggets, who barely missed the cut last season and, one year later, still haven't figured out the right buttons to push. The Avs can speed up the process.

First up is the Blackhawks on Friday. The Hawks stink now, so the Chicago transplants who often turn Pepsi Center into the Madhouse should be back to their early 2000s form and subdued. The Avs need two points like their season depends on it.

It’s a guess, but I think the Avs need seven more points to squeak into the postseason. Go 3-1-1 and they're in. It's doable and would give them 97 points — double their sob-story total last season — and mean they knocked off at least a couple of the teams fighting for the same playoff spot.

“Three weeks ago if I had said we’ve got to go in and play Anaheim, L.A., San Jose and then come back home against St. Louis (in the finale), I would’ve seen that as a bit of a negative,” coach Jared Bednar said. “Now that turns into a positive because we’re trying to catch those teams to get in.”

Here's how they get in: Colorado's best players must be its best players. Considering how it has carried the scoring load over the course of 70-plus games, it feels like a big ask of the top line to kick its production into yet another gear. But the Avs are in this spot, on the brink of an all-timer turnaround, thanks to the Landeskog-MacKinnon-Mikko Rantanen line that mostly has avoided long stretches of quiet — until now.

“It’s almost unfair how much we rely on them offensively," Bednar said.

Look at it this way. With a finish that reminds of his start, MacKinnon can secure the Hart Trophy and his second postseason appearance at the same time. But how does the Avalanche bust free from this scoring slump? 

“We’re still creating a lot of chances. The last three games we just couldn’t put the puck in the net. We've created chances in every game," Rantanen said Thursday. "Sometimes it is like that. You just try hard and it doesn’t go in. The good thing is we are still getting chances. If you’re not getting chances you have to be worried."

What, the Avs worry? Don't start now with one more threshold to cross.

Twitter: @bypaulklee

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