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Hall, MacKinnon continue move into NHL’s upper echelon with post-season play

Taylor Hall and Nathan MacKinnon will be in the mix for the Hart Trophy thanks to their regular season play, but they’re proving they can continue to dominate the opposition in the post-season.

We’re still months away from the NHL Awards, which means we’re still months away from learning where Taylor Hall and Nathan MacKinnon finished among the top vote-getters for the Hart Trophy. One thing we know for sure, though, is that when the league’s MVP award is handed out and the voting comes to light, Hall and MacKinnon are virtual locks to finish in the top five with a fair chance the New Jersey Devils winger and Colorado Avalanche pivot are both sitting in the audience as Hart finalists for the late-June ceremony.

We know this because Hall and MacKinnon have been, in a word, undeniable this season. Guiding teams in separate conferences, Hall, 26, and MacKinnon, 22, were at the forefront of a pair of unexpected playoff pushes-turned-playoff berths for two teams that were projected to finish so far out of the wild-card hunt that both fanbases were already thinking about what Rasmus Dahlin might look like on the blueline come next season.

For Hall, his dominance was almost otherworldly. In this, his second season as a Devil, Hall made the one-for-one deal that brought him to New Jersey seem all the more laughable in retrospect. He scored 39 goals, registered 93 points and pieced together an almost unthinkably dominant second half of the campaign. From Jan. 1 onward, he scored 27 goals and 57 points in 40 games, only failing to find the scoresheet in four games en route to leading the Devils in scoring by 41 points. In terms of driving an offense, Hall’s performance was other levels of brilliant.

MacKinnon was no slouch, either. After years of trying to recapture the glory that was his 24-goal, 63-point Calder Trophy-winning campaign, MacKinnon finally put it all together. He, too, put home 39 goals, and the Avalanche youngster led the league with 12 game-winning tallies. He also hit 97 points by season’s end, eclipsing his previous career-best by more than 50 percent. He finished 13 points clear of the next-best Colorado scorer, and in the most crucial outing of the campaign — what basically amounted to a playoff game given it was a win-and-you’re-in affair with the St. Louis Blues — MacKinnon had a pair of points, one of which was the game-winner. And as the brightest light on an Avalanche team that was rebounding from a near historically poor season in 2016-17, MacKinnon is certainly worthy of each Hart vote he receives, just as Hall has more than earned his spot on what is likely to be every single ballot cast.

The somewhat unfortunate reality both Hall and MacKinnon faced entering the post-season, though, was that a dominant regular season can be quickly forgotten if the playoff performance doesn’t follow suit. Countless players have seen a commanding campaign wiped from the collective memory of a fanbase if they should fall short of meeting expectations in the post-season, which is why a star-making regular season doesn’t necessarily guarantee entrance into the perceived upper echelon of NHL talent. Suffice to say, though, Hall and MacKinnon have done enough through three games this post-season that both might be on the brink of earning the superstar labels befitting their first-overall draft pick pedigree.

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While it shouldn’t be the least bit surprising that Hall is piloting the Devils’ offense on the heels of his regular season play, it’s nevertheless impressive the way in which he’s continued to produce despite being keyed in on by a Tampa Bay Lightning defense that allowed the 13th-fewest goals during the regular season. Hall has earned five points in three games, two of which have been unassisted tallies with the Devils winger picking up the primary assists on both the game-tying and game-winning goals in New Jersey’s Game 3 victory on Monday. Hall has been all over the ice, too. He has 17 shots on goal in three games, tied with the San Jose Sharks’ Evander Kane for the post-season lead, and Hall’s ice time has seen more of the ice in each successive contest. By series end, he might be playing 30 minutes and in all situations.

Likewise, MacKinnon is putting his stamp all over the Avalanche’s first-round tete-a-tete with the Nashville Predators. 

He opened the series with an assist, followed it up with a goal and two points as Colorado came within one of sending Game 2 to overtime and then had his most outstanding performance of the series with a pair of tallies — and what could have been a hat trick if not for the empty-net goal awarded to Gabriel Landeskog — to go along with seven shots in the Avalanche’s Game 3 victory. MacKinnon’s three goals and five points are tied for the Colorado team lead. Scoring often against the Predators is no easy feat, either: Nashville had the second-stingiest team defense during the regular season, allowing just 204 goals against. Moreover, only nine players scored five or more points against the Predators all season and five of those players needed four games to get it done. Add to it the fact MacKinnon has made his mark with the NHL’s deepest defense corps watching over him and it’s hard not to get the feeling that this is him saying he’s here to stay as one of the league’s elite point producers.

Of course, the great shame of it all is that there’s an honest-to-goodness possibility neither Hall and MacKinnon will see the second round of the post-season. Rare is it that one player can take over a series enough to single-handedly guide his team to victory. That’s why despite the play of Hall, New Jersey still finds themselves with a 2-1 series deficit to the Lightning, the Eastern Conference’s top regular season side. Colorado is in the exact same hole to the Western Conference-leading Predators, who also took home the Presidents’ Trophy, even with MacKinnon leading the way. But the realization here is that Hall and MacKinnon are more than regular season wonders, that they can come to play when the games matter most, and that comes with great promise for the future for their respective franchises, no matter how the rest of Round One shakes out.

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