Nathan MacKinnon had been a Hart Trophy nominee for 24 hours when, one afternoon last week, he leaned forward in a chair at the Colorado Avalanche's practice facility and flashed a scarcely perceptible smile. If his brilliance on the ice this season was enough to establish his MVP case, he still wanted to make a point about his team - the best for which he's played, in his estimation, since he arrived to revive the franchise as the No. 1 draft pick in 2013.
"I think our record speaks for itself," MacKinnon said on a Zoom conference call with reporters. "We're (two points) out of first in the West with a hurt team all season. I think when our team's healthy, we've lost one or two games all year."
Pedants and doubters could quibble with the significance of that last remark. The Avalanche were almost never healthy in 2019-20, so it's understandable that a small sample would produce few defeats. Yet it's also easy to grasp the transcendent 24-year-old center's logic. Except for MacKinnon, every member of Colorado's core - from Gabriel Landeskog to Mikko Rantanen to Cale Makar to Philipp Grubauer - missed extended time because of injury, often in tandem, and the Avs didn't falter. Imagine what they could do as a group at full bore.
The Avalanche's first genuine Stanley Cup contender of the MacKinnon era is fit and itching to steal the show in the NHL's bubbled playoff tournament. Not since Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg's overlapping heyday has an Avs team been this equipped to go deep. If Vancouver's Quinn Hughes doesn't win the Calder Trophy, Makar will.