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Winning Play: The MacKinnon Rules

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Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon (29) shoots and scores past San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns (88) in the second period in game three of the second round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Pepsi Center. Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

DENVER, Co. — In 1988, the Detroit Pistons devised a defensive strategy for limiting Michael Jordan called “The Jordan Rules”.

Pistons coach Chuck Daly described “The Jordan Rules” to Sports Illustrated:

If Michael was at the point, we forced him left and doubled him. If he was on the left wing, we went immediately to a double team from the top. If he was on the right wing, we went to a slow double team. He could hurt you equally from either wing — hell, he could hurt you from the hot-dog stand — but we just wanted to vary the look. And if he was on the box, we doubled with a big guy.

The other rule was, any time he went by you, you had to nail him. If he was coming off a screen, nail him. We didn’t want to be dirty — I know some people thought we were — but we had to make contact and be very physical.

Essentially, Detroit tried to confuse Jordan with varied defensive looks and hamper him physically as much as (legally) possible.

More than 30 years later, the San Jose Sharks are applying their own version of “The Jordan Rules” on the Colorado Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon.

This is best demonstrated by how the Sharks penalty kill has defended the Avalanche power play breakout.

Going back to Game 1 of the Colorado-Calgary series, this is what the Avs like to do:

Usually, it’ll be Tyson Barrie (4) or Gabriel Landeskog (92) advancing the puck. This allows MacKinnon (29) to build speed from behind and receive the drop pass in stride.

Obviously, penalty kills around the league are well aware of MacKinnon’s skating ability, so they’ll stand the speedster up to prevent a clean zone entry.

For MacKinnon, this means that he needs a passing option. Landeskog, along the left wall, is a typical safety valve.

MacKinnon gives to Landeskog and they enter the zone simultaneously. Landeskog completes the give-and-go by returning the puck to MacKinnon. Notice how the Flames aren’t shadowing MacKinnon. The Avalanche have now set up their power play.

To recap, here are the keys of Colorado’s power play breakout:

  • Drop pass to MacKinnon’s speed from behind
  • Enter the zone with MacKinnon give-and-go

Last night, the San Jose penalty kill was able to force MacKinnon offsides twice:

“That’s always the game plan when you have that 1-3 [penalty killing formation],” Justin Braun noted. “Make that stand hard. Make a move, push guys off side.”

But it’s the Sharks’ work to keep MacKinnon from touching the puck a second time that was most striking. Remember, on the MacKinnon give-and-go, he’s supposed to get the puck back.

“We know they obviously want to get the puck in his hands, especially with the way they break out the puck,” Evander Kane acknowledged.

In all of these penalty killing clips from last night’s 4-2 victory, keep your eyes on MacKinnon after he gives up the puck — note how much defensive attention that San Jose pays him.

MacKinnon attempted a give-and-go with Landeskog, but Marc-Edouard Vlasic (44) met MacKinnon in the corner.

MacKinnon again gave it to Landeskog; you can see Timo Meier (28), head on swivel, looking for the speedster.

This time, MacKinnon made it easy by going to the same place as the puck and Mikko Rantanen (96). It was two birds with one stone for Vlasic.

Vlasic approached MacKinnon in the slot.

Marcus Sorensen (20) kept tabs on MacKinnon in the slot.

This wasn’t just last night either. The Sharks have been doing this since Game 1:

On the MacKinnon give-and-go, Melker Karlsson (68) doesn’t even bother to play Landeskog, choosing instead to obstruct the object of everybody’s attention.

Brent Burns (88) shaded toward MacKinnon to prevent the give-and-go.

San Jose’s strategy appears to be subtly different than how Calgary played MacKinnon. Again, watch MacKinnon after he gives up the puck:

MacKinnon just sails where he wants. It looks like the Flames didn’t want to overplay MacKinnon on the give-and-go; they were content if he gave up the puck the first time.

Flames Nation’s Mike Pfeil pointed out, on Calgary’s penalty kill in the first round: “The entire PK was passive to a fault at times.”

“Teams this year have probably had that same gameplan, get it out of MacKinnon’s hands as quick as possible,” Logan Couture said. “It hasn’t seemed to work for anyone yet.”

At the moment, the Sharks are doing a better job than the Flames, at least.

Meanwhile, Peter DeBoer half-joked, “If we can keep [MacKinnon] to one a night, I’ll take that every night of this series.”

If we replace the one with 25, that sounds like something Chuck Daly would’ve said.