How Nathan MacKinnon, Avalanche Top Line a Unique Challenge for Sharks

The Sharks didn't see the Colorado Avalanche's All-Star forward line right away in either of the first two games of their Stanley Cup playoff second-round series.

Colorado's top trio of Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen took their first 5-on-5 shift together with four minutes remaining in the first period of the Avalanche's 4-3 win in Game 2 on Sunday. They didn't reunite for good until a few minutes before the midway point of the second period, but made a game-changing impact when they did.

Colorado entered the second period trailing 1-0, and ended it with a 2-1 lead. Landeskog scored the tying goal, with a secondary assist from MacKinnon. Landeskog and Rantanen notched helpers on defenseman Tyson Barrie's disputed go-ahead goal, and the line as a whole led the Avalanche's charge back into Game 2 after the Sharks' dominant first period. Avalanche coach Jared Bednar credited Colorado's improved neutral-zone play for putting his top line in position to succeed.

"We give them the puck at the right time and in the right situations, guys like [MacKinnon are] going to produce," Bednar told reporters at SAP Center on Sunday. "We have to do a good job as a team to make sure we get the pucks to those guys at the right time."

The Avalanche scored a 5-on-5 goal with their top line on the ice for the first time this series in Game 2, but Landeskog, MacKinnon and Rantanen have tilted the ice in their favor in both games.

In 20:30 of full-strength time this series, Colorado's top line has controlled 59.62 percent of the shot attempts (31-21), 64.29 percent of the shots (18-10), 65.63 percent of the scoring chances (21-11) and 71.43 percent of the high-danger chances, according to Natural Stat Trick. Their production relative to the rest of Colorado's offense is especially stark early in the second round.

Without -- or with just some -- of the top line on the ice, the Avalanche have controlled 46.5 percent of the 5-on-5 shot attempts and 44.74 percent of the shots. They have still managed to out-chance the Sharks, but Landeskog, MacKinnon and Rantanen as a line have created 10 of Colorado's 25 high-danger chances at full strength.

MacKinnon, who was a Hart Trophy finalist last season and finished seventh in the league this season with 99 points, arguably has been the line's best player despite scoring just one 5-on-5 point in two games. The dynamic forward leads the Avs with 10 shots across all situations, and only one of his unblocked shots has missed the net. He is also tied for second on Colorado with four high-danger chances and nine scoring chances, per Natural Stat Trick.

"They're gonna get their looks," Sharks coach Peter DeBoer told reporters Monday at the team's practice facility. "They're gonna get their chances. He's a great player. I thought we gave him a little bit more room last night, and I didn't think we were heavy enough in our own end last night compared to Game 1. Credit to them. They dialed up their intensity a little bit, and I thought ours lagged a little bit."

[RELATED: Brodie's five observations as Sharks-Avs shifts to Denver]

The speed of Landeskog, MacKinnon and Rantanen presents a different challenge for the Sharks than Vegas' high-scoring combination of Max Pacioretty, Paul Stastny and Mark Stone did in the first round. So, too, does how much San Jose has seen the trio.

Since the start of the second round, MacKinnon (23:25), Landeskog (23:12) and Rantanen (22:14) have played more minutes per game than anyone but Barrie. In 5-on-5 situations, they've all played at least 6:28 more than the next-closest forward (Carl Soderberg). Some of that surely can be chalked up to the Avalanche's rest after extinguishing the top-seeded Calgary Flames in a five-game, first-round series, but all three finished in the top 15 in average ice time among forwards this season. The Edmonton Oilers were the only other team with two (Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl).

Winning matchups against the Avalanche's other three forward lines can only go so far with their first line playing so much. So far, Vlasic and Brent Burns are the Sharks defensemen who have seen the trio the most. Logan Couture's line drew the bulk of the match-ups in two games at SAP Center, but that might not be the case as the series shifts to Colorado for Games 3 and 4. Bednar, not DeBoer, will get to dictate the matchups with the benefit of last change.

"I think we're comfortable with whoever we end up out there against them," DeBoer said Monday. "I think everyone knows what they have to do against them. You gotta trust your whole group this time of year because you don't have the luxury of last change on the road."

The Avalanche did not lose a home game in the first round, and that was with Rantanen playing on a different line than his fellow All-Stars. The Sharks will see plenty of the three of them starting Tuesday at Pepsi Center, and slowing them down is paramount to regaining a series lead.

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