DENVER (AP) — Nathan MacKinnon has gone from "Why me?" to "Why not us?"
After losing in the second round of the playoffs for the third consecutive year last season, the star-crossed superstar groused that he was eight years into his NHL career and he hadn't won squat.
An offseason chat with his boss, Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic, helped the Colorado center realize he didn't have to lug around the franchise's fortunes and weight of hefty expectations squarely on his shoulders.
By dialing it down, MacKinnon perhaps has cracked the code.
"Nate is giving up probably playing the way he's always played to make sure that he's good on the defensive side of it, but he's still contributing and it's up to the other guys on the team to get the job done on some nights," coach Jared Bednar said. "Different guys will step up on different nights. But that's how you win in the playoffs, you have to be willing to sacrifice a little bit of your own game for what's better for the team."
That's a lesson MacKinnon took to heart from the start of training camp and helped him lead the Avalanche to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 2001.
MacKinnon and his teammates will try to take a 2-0 lead over the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night at Ball Arena, where they won a 4-3 overtime thriller in the opener.
Sakic is trying to follow in the footsteps of friend and fellow Denver icon John Elway in winning a championship from the front office after a hoisting the trophy twice during his Hall of Fame playing career He exhorted MacKinnon not to be so hard on himself and to play more freely this season.
It's worked wonders. MacKinnon said he no longer feels bogged down.
"I was in a different head space last year but definitely feel more free and feel good, for sure," said MacKinnon, who had an assist in Game 1 but drew every eye — and plenty of Lightning attention — on multiple occasions.
"It's a special group in there and you don't get to the final by having selfish guys or guys going in different directions," MacKinnon said.
Make no mistake, however: MacKinnon still leads aplenty by example.
"He's such a driven guy," defenseman Cale Makar said. "You see him -- he's almost on the ice every single day, one of the first guys, doing individual work or working with the boys. It's not always all about himself and individual work, too. He is always about working with somebody else, whether it's teaching or giving little pointers. He's so driven and motivated and that's what makes him great."
And what's helping the Avalanche close in on greatness themselves.
"I feel like he just does everything so well. He's such a two-way player for us," Makar said. "He comes up in those big moments ... he comes up defensively for us, too. So there's definitely nothing specific that I can nail down that makes him so special. He does everything so well."
Trade deadline acquisition Josh Manson said MacKinnon's all-round game, both physical and psychological, makes him the quintessential leader, one who makes all those around him better.
"Well, he wants to win. Since I got here, I've realized that that's all he wants to do," Manson said. "He wants to drive the rest of the team to win. He expects a lot of himself and he expects a lot out of his teammates. So he's a good leader in that way. He pushes you to be better and he pushes you to drive yourself to win every game."
By modifying his magnificent game in Year 9, MacKinnon has become the complete player everyone envisioned he'd grown into back in 2013 when he was a baby-faced 17-year-old and the No. 1 overall draft pick.
"I think that there's a tremendous amount of growth in his game," Bednar said. "The maturity of his game over the last couple of seasons and in going through what we went through in the playoffs last year, has kind of driven him to a different point this year. He has a better understanding and a growing understanding of everything that's happening around him and that other guys play an important role in our team's success and it doesn't have to always just come back on him — and being at peace with that.
"Again, I'll repeat it as many times as you ask, it doesn't mean that he doesn't put a lot of weight on his own shoulders. He does," he said. "That's the type of competitor he is."
With contributions from AP Sports Writer Pat Graham.