BY Jim Lachimia
The Associated Press
Nathan MacKinnon has been compared to Sidney Crosby for much of his life. The two grew up in the same Canadian town and both went No. 1 in the NHL draft.
Now they get to take a much closer look at each other.
MacKinnon and the Colorado Avalanche visit Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday night in the first NHL matchup of the pride of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia.
The Avalanche and Penguins are each off to a 7-1 start, with MacKinnon and Crosby playing a key role. The 26-year-old Crosby has seven goals and 10 assists for a league-best 17 points.
MacKinnon, who turned 18 on Sept. 1, has a goal and six assists.
MacKinnon called Crosby the best player in the world and said the center is “on fire right now.” But MacKinnon is focused on what he needs to do to help the Avalanche get another win.
“Any time he’s out there when you’re not on the ice, you sometimes get to enjoy and watch some good players when you’re playing against them,” he said. “But when you’re out there, you don’t worry about who you’re playing against. You worry about what you have to do.”
Crosby knows a lot about what MacKinnon is going through in his first year in the NHL. Crosby, who was the No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft, faced high expectations when he was an 18-year-old rookie and had 102 points in his first season with Pittsburgh.
MacKinnon became one of the league’s top prospects when he starred for Halifax of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in the previous two seasons. He was the most valuable player of the Memorial Cup in May, leading his team to the title.
“Obviously he skates really well, and I don’t think you see too many young guys that can shoot the puck like he can in their first year,” Crosby said. “I think he’s got a great shot. I think he’s got all the tools – really good hands, he works hard, and he’s not afraid to go into traffic areas and create chances that way. So I think he gives himself a lot of opportunities to create things.”
The Avalanche struggled during last year’s lockout-shortened season, but they have been one of the league’s surprise teams so far this year under new coach Patrick Roy, a Hall of Fame goaltender.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said he expects to see a young team with fresh legs and a lot of speed on Monday night, and MacKinnon is certainly part of that mix.
Hailing from the same hometown as one of the NHL’s best players puts a lot of pressure on a rising player. But Crosby believes guys such as MacKinnon and Seth Jones – a defenseman who was the Nashville Predators’ first-round draft pick this year – are better prepared for the NHL due to their extensive experience coming into the league.
“Both (MacKinnon) and Seth Jones were talked about for a long time,” Crosby said. “They’ve been through everything – World Cup, World Juniors, and all that stuff. So I think everything has prepared them to get to this point and, as everyone has seen pretty quickly here, it hasn’t taken them long to get used to NHL hockey. They’ve adjusted well.”