That message? Nobody should be underestimating the Kraken.
MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen each scored twice, with Cale Makar also scoring in the Avalanche’s 6-4 win Saturday over the Kraken in Game 3 in the first Stanley Cup playoff game in the Climate Pledge Arena history. Colorado took a 2-1 lead in the series.
After falling into an early hole, the Avs rallied to score three straight goals for a two-goal lead.
The Kraken responded with a pair of goals from Jamie Oleksiak and Matty Beniers that were scored within 30 seconds of one another to tie the score at 3-3 in the second period. The Avs broke the tie with MacKinnon’s second goal sandwiched between Rantanen’s two goals for a 6-3 lead, before the Kraken’s Jaden Schwartz scored with 40 seconds left in the game.
“It’s a really great team. This is definitely the hardest first round I’ve been in, I think,” MacKinnon said when asked for his biggest takeaway after three games. “Sometimes, the last few years, we’ve been the top seed and we’ve not gotten easy teams by any means. But this Seattle team is a 100-point team. They’re really good and we’re going to have to continue to be our best to beat them.”
MacKinnon, who was the first pick of the 2013 NHL draft, experienced the postseason in his rookie year, with the Avs losing in the first round to the Central Division rival Minnesota Wild in seven games. The club missed the playoffs for three years before returning in 2017-18, losing to the Nashville Predators in six games.
Since then, the Avs have flourished in the first round. In 2018-19, they were a wild-card entry that upset the top-seeded Calgary Flames in five games. A year later, they beat the Arizona Coyotes in five games and swept the St. Louis Blues the following season. Last year, they swept the Predators en route to winning the third championship in franchise history.
But this year? The first round has been a challenge with the Kraken taking the opening game of the series and scoring first in Games 2 and 3 — contests the Avalanche ultimately came back to win.
“They try to spread out, especially in the neutral zone,” Avalanche defenseman Devon Toews said of the Kraken. “Sometimes, they are able to pull two of us back and hit the underneath man with speed and puts one of the D with a bad spot and a bad gap and you can’t do anything about it sometimes. It’s a little bit on us to use our feet and use our gap to get up a bit, but they’re able to spread the zone our and then our forwards have to be looking behind their back for the next man, the next wave. That’s where they can get really dangerous.”
Entering the series, there were questions about how the Kraken, in their first playoff appearance in their two-year existence, could matchup against an Avs team seeking a second straight Stanley Cup. The Kraken have answered some of those questions by relying on an aggressive yet physically demanding forecheck that takes away time and space with the sole premise of creating mistakes.
It has happened a few times in this series, and it happened twice when the Kraken pressured the Avs into the sort of mistakes that saw a 3-1 game immediately transform into a tie game, leading the Climate Pledge Arena crowd to erupt.
The Kraken’s second season has seen them consistently sell out their 17,151-seat facility, which has been retrofitted from the home that once housed the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics into one of the loudest environments in the NHL.
Hours before the game, thousands of fans were outside watching other playoff games on a projection screen while walking the arena grounds, taking in the sort of experience that might have seemed like a dream, considering the Kraken were a lottery team less than a year ago.
“We were loose, we were prepared, we were ready for this one,” Kraken coach Dave Hakstol said. “I loved our start tonight. I loved the atmosphere. I loved the building, the fans, the feel of the building. That’s a playoff feel. That’s what it is. That part of it was awesome.”
The series resumes Monday with the Avalanche seeking to come out of Game 4 with a 3-1 lead before returning to Denver for what could be a series-clinching Game 5 win at Ball Arena.
Or it could be a case in which the Kraken draw level and push it to at least a six-game series to ensure Climate Pledge Arena could have one more game beyond Monday.
“They’re a good team. That’s why it’s been one of the most difficult ones we’ve had,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. “They’re a really good hockey team. They’re a deep hockey team, and they work extremely hard. They’ve bought into their system and their game plan, and they compete within that plan. That’s what makes it difficult. To me, they’re all difficult. Even some of the ones that’ve won in the past that were 4-0, it’s still a play or two in each game that makes a difference in the hockey game.”
Avs’ Nathan MacKinnon calls Kraken my ‘hardest 1st round’ foe