Sharks vs. Avalanche Film Room: How do you stop MacKinnon?

Brenden Dillon called Nathan MacKinnon the “heartbeat” of the Colorado Avalanche.

So how can the San Jose Sharks rip the heart out?

Three things jump out: Don’t let MacKinnon build speed up, make the neutral zone difficult to navigate and keep him from shooting.

That’s all easier said than done, of course.

”Every time MacKinnon touched the puck,” Logan Couture said of the Hart candidate’s first-round performance against the Calgary Flames, “I thought he was going to score.”

Don’t Let MacKinnon Get Started

MacKinnon is one of the fastest, most powerful skaters in the world. If possible, it’s imperative to stop him from getting going.

Dillon agreed, “That’s the biggest thing.”

”Your F3 has to make contact with him,” a former head coach offered.

In this clip from January, two Sharks forecheckers (F1: Joe Thornton, 19; F2: Lukas Radil, 52) pursued the puck. However, Erik Johnson (6) was able to stick it above Thornton. MacKinnon closed on the loose change, but F3 Timo Meier (28), managed to catch MacKinnon at his first steps.

The same coach added, “That’s dangerous though because he’s a great give-and-go player and hard to hit.”

So if you don’t pry the puck away from MacKinnon early enough, like the high forward did here, perhaps MacKinnon gets it to the man flying up the Meier-vacated center lane (Matt Nieto, 83)? And then blows by you because you committed to him and missed?

Clog Neutral Zone

“MacKinnon likes to take the puck back and come up by himself through the middle,” noted a scout.

It’s incumbent on San Jose, when possible, to turn the neutral zone into a minefield.

Notice the high forward, Tomas Hertl (48), got two swipes at MacKinnon. The first kept MacKinnon from starting up, the second forced him to change direction. Hertl wasn’t even really trying to take the puck away, he just wanted to make life hard for MacKinnon.

The Czech pivot has no chance against MacKinnon in a flat-out race, but this is an example of the tools that the Sharks have at their disposal to challenge the superstar up the middle.

Assistant coach Steve Spott was talking about Connor McDavid in January, but he may as well have been talking about MacKinnon: “One thing we talked about is whoever’s on the ice against him, you have to respect him, make sure you’re above him, make him come through you.”

Keep MacKinnon Outside

It’s easy to compare MacKinnon to McDavid. Both are speedsters and playmakers of the highest order.

But a scout pointed out: “MacKinnon is much more of a shooting threat. In the offensive zone, you have to keep him to the outside, stay between him and the net.

“McDavid, you worry more about where he’s going to pass it, so you take away his receivers.”

Here’s an example of Justin Braun (61) keeping MacKinnon to the outside:

Who Matches Up Against MacKinnon?

Speaking of Braun, he was the most-used defenseman at 5-on-5 against MacKinnon in San Jose’s last “serious” home contest with Colorado in March. The teams also played each other in the last game of the regular season, when playoff positioning had been decided.

Will Braun see a lot of MacKinnon in this series? Or will Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Brent Burns, the pairing of choice against the Mark Stone line, see more of MacKinnon?

Depending on Erik Karlsson’s health, I suspect that Dillon and Karlsson might be the preferred match-up.

Vlasic-Burns were appropriate for the Stone line because it was a closer size and skating match-up. Karlsson-Dillon could be better against more speed.

In January, when Karlsson was at his best this season, he and Dillon helped shut down McDavid then Nikita Kucherov.

While Dillon wasn’t giving any details away, he cited mobility as being critical against MacKinnon-like speed: “For Erik and me, when we were able to play against those type of players, I think our feet have been the biggest thing. The mobility to be able to gap up on them, try to take away time and space.

“Those players are going to get good, quality chances. At the end of the day, when you can limit them, try to take them away as early as possible, you’re going to have the most success.”