DENVER (AP) Nathan MacKinnon's name frequently gets mentioned among the best players in the game this season.
That's flattering and certainly appreciated and very understandable - the Colorado Avalanche forward is among the points leaders - but it's not really a surprise.
Least of all to him.
''I expect it,'' MacKinnon said without a trace of arrogance. ''This feels normal.''
The former No. 1 overall pick and rookie of the year who trains in the summer with Sidney Crosby has taken his game to another level. With a blend of speed and savvy to go with a pinpoint shot, MacKinnon's blossomed into one of the league's top scorers with 33 goals and 49 assists.
His rise has helped put the Avalanche into playoff position a season after finishing last in the NHL. They're currently holding on to a wild-card spot with 13 games remaining.
''Playoffs are my goal and everybody's goal on this team,'' said the 22-year-old MacKinnon, who was the top pick in 2013. ''With us making the playoffs comes personal success. It shows that being a good team helps everybody.''
The All-Star center recently became the first Avalanche player to eclipse the 80-point mark since 2006-07, when Hall of Fame forward turned front office executive Joe Sakic (100 points) and Andrew Brunette (83) accomplished the feat.
''I didn't expect to get 80,'' said MacKinnon, whose previous high point total was 63 in 2013-14, when he won rookie of the year and Colorado last made the postseason. ''It's not really about the numbers. It's about how I'm playing and how I'm doing it. I'm trying to focus on what I can control and that's how I play.''
MacKinnon leads the Avalanche in virtually every offensive statistic - scoring (82 points), points per game (1.34), game-winning goals (10), power-play goals (12) and shots (227). He's also up there in another category: Sticking up for linemates, which was on display last weekend when he dropped the gloves against Arizona after taking exception to a hit on Mikko Rantanen.
His teammates applauded the move. So did his coach, Jared Bednar, with one caveat: Don't do that again.
''He's such a big part of our club that there's too much at risk there,'' Bednar said.
MacKinnon has been especially difficult to contain at the Pepsi Center, where he leads the league in home scoring with 59 points. It's the most home points by an Avalanche player since Sakic had 67 in 2000-01.
''For him to be doing what he's doing and establish himself as one of the best players in the league, it's something special,'' defenseman Tyson Barrie said. ''He's really turned the corner this year and developed. It's going to be scary to see what he can do.''
His fellow linemates Rantanen and captain Gabriel Landeskog have played an integral role. They've been paired together for most of the season and have a combined 201 points between them.
They've developed such a cohesive connection that it's hard to break them up. Case in point: When MacKinnon sat out eight games in early February with a shoulder injury, Landeskog and Rantanen combined for one goal.
''He's always had skill,'' Landeskog said. ''Now, he's getting rewarded for it.''
Another part of MacKinnon's success can be attributed to all the time he's spent in the offseason working out with Crosby, his favorite player growing up.
''He pushes me,'' said MacKinnon, who's joined the Pittsburgh standout on the ice for the last five or so summers. ''You can't find a better workout partner than him.''
Ask MacKinnon about his golf game - his other obsession - and he just grins. He jokes that he hits about as many golf balls on the range as he does pucks into the net during practice.
''Not really, but I definitely do hit a lot,'' said the Halifax, Nova Scotia, product who became third-youngest Colorado/Quebec player to reach 100 career goals on Feb. 20. ''I think it's cool how you're on your own in golf and against yourself. There's no one stopping you. It's all on you.''
He was bitten by the golf bug as a rookie, when he was taken to the course by Barrie and former teammate Ryan O'Reilly . At first, it wasn't pretty.
''He was just awful,'' Barrie recalled. ''It was tough to watch.''
MacKinnon took lessons, frequented the driving range and played nearly every day during the offseason. Now, he's a four-handicap.
''He's really turned into a good player,'' Barrie said. ''It's been frustrating for me.''
There's another big-time golfer in the Avalanche organization as well - Sakic. On occasion, MacKinnon has been known to join his boss for a round.
So, who gets the better of whom on the links?
''We have some good matches,'' MacKinnon coyly responded. ''He's a really good golfer.''
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