DENVER — Nate must be great.

The coolest sound in Colorado sports is silence. It’s the hush of 18,000 Avalanche fanatics holding their breath as if they had just entered the Eisenhower Tunnel: What will '29' do next?

With the Avalanche suddenly in a pond-ice brawl with the Calgary Flames, MacKinnon became great. Trailing 2-1 in Game 4, MacKinnon slid a perfect pass to Mikko Rantanen, who flipped it in. Tie game. 

Rantanen scored at 10:23 into overtime as the Avs won 3-2 for a 3-1 edge in the series.

And MacKinnon’s "watch this" moments are adding up into a montage. The postseason tends to separate the really good ones from the greats, and Nate has been great. MacKinnon had 20 points in 16 playoff games entering Wednesday, the highest points-per-game average among active players. Shoved him just ahead of Bobby Orr at 1.25 points per game.

Sweet company.

"One of the three best players in the world, or if you want to expand it, one of the five best players in the world,” Altitude TV analyst and Denver legend Peter McNab told me Wednesday.

MacKinnon is awful for beer sales. Who’s going to leave their seat with a rocket ship on the ice? He’s a conversation killer — hold that thought when the puck’s on MacKinnon’s stick. Against the Flames he’s kept it rolling: three goals, two assists and all the attention from Calgary's 'D.'

Mikko Rantanen scores in OT, Avalanche one win away from eliminating Flames

“It’s not what he’s doing to the Flames. It’s what he does to the opposition,” McNab said. “These guys just happen to be the team he’s playing against. It could be anybody in the league and he’d be doing the exact same thing.”

The NHL playoffs have been turned upside-down. Going into Wednesday, the No. 1 seeds were 1-6 against the No. 8s, a trend that’s not unheard of but remains jarring. Shoot, Tampa Bay had 128 points this season, and Columbus swept the Lightning straight into early tee times.

Avs coach Jared Bednar explained league parity like this: “It doesn’t matter who they roll over the boards. Everyone’s playing the same way."

One more thing, too. Got the best player on the ice? You’ve always got a chance.

“And we’ve got those dynamic guys who are those difference-makers making impact at the right time of the year,” Bednar said. “So that always helps.”

Flames coach Bill Peters identified two players Calgary must slow to sneak back into a series that had been dominated by the Avalanche: MacKinnon and Tyson Barrie. As Peters reviewed film from a Game 3 loss, he mentioned to an assistant coach they had already watched a sequence in which Barrie sped through Calgary’s defense. You showed me that one, Peters said.

“No, that’s a different one,” the coach replied.

Calgary’s respect for MacKinnon manifested itself during Game 4. Gripping a one-goal lead with 16 minutes left in the final period, the Flames sent two bodies at MacKinnon in the neutral zone — not on one possession, but on most. At once he carried two Flames who hung on his shoulders like they were in love. Tough way to skate, let alone handle a puck.

And it’s clear MacKinnon must score, or have a hand in one, for Colorado to advance. In the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Avs go as MacKinnon goes. As an 18-year-old rookie, MacKinnon registered points in three of seven playoff games against the Minnesota Wild. The Avs went 3-0 in those games, 0-4 when he didn’t have a point. No better evidence than that.

“Legs feel great,” MacKinnon said after Game 3.

Good. It's clear the Flames won't go quietly. If Colorado has designs on a deep run in the Stanley Cup tournament, Nate must be great.

So far, so good.

(Contact Gazette sports columnist Paul Klee at paul.klee@gazette.com or on Twitter at @bypaulklee.)

Sports columnist

Denver sports columnist for The Gazette

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