That's his description of top players buckling into the driver's seat and going full throttle this time of year to lead their team. The "No. 29 bus” was cruising along, too, as MacKinnon took the Avalanche for quite a ride in Game 1 against Nashville, scoring twice during a 7-2 win.
“He is a really good bus driver,” coach Jared Bednar cracked.
The same goes for Pittsburgh standout Evgeni Malkin, who deflected in a goal during the third overtime in a 4-3 win over the New York Rangers. T.J. Oshie's third-period score had the Washington Capitals riding high in a 4-2 win over the top-seeded Florida Panthers in Game 1.
“Doesn’t matter what your depth is, your stars still have to be your best players,” said Bednar, whose team hosts the Predators in Game 2 on Thursday night. “That’s how you win.”
Bednar's got quite a few that can take command. There’s MacKinnon, who raised his playoff points per game average to 1.41. That trails only Wayne Gretzky (1.84) and Mario Lemieux (1.61), with a minimum of 40 games.
There’s defenseman Cale Makar, who had three points, including a score, in Colorado’s explosive five-goal first period. And Mikko Rantanen, who had three assists. And captain Gabriel Landeskog, who returned to the ice for the first time since knee surgery in March and delivered a goal and an assist.
There are no brakes for this fast-paced Avalanche squad.
“We wanted to get pucks to the net quick," Makar said. "We did that.”
For the Penguins and the Rangers, it's all about rest and recovery. Because that was a lot of hockey before Malkin solved Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who had a star turn of his own with 79 saves — second-best in the long history of the NHL playoffs.
It was Malkin’s second overtime playoff goal. His last one was 13 years ago in Game 5 of the conference semifinals. His 13 career game-winning postseason goals are just one shy of matching Jaromir Jagr for the most in franchise history, according to NHL Stats.
Oshie's tally with 9:23 remaining against Florida was his sixth game-winning goal in the playoffs. That's the third-most in franchise history, behind Alex Ovechkin (10) and Nicklas Backstrom (7).
Speaking of Backstrom, he delivered the pass to Oshie — and then the good news.
“Didn’t see it go in,” Oshie said. “He had to come tell me that we scored.”
Washington might have a big hole in the lineup to replace Thursday. Tom Wilson, who scored the Capitals’ first goal of Game 1 but logged less than 2 minutes of ice time, will be a game-time decision with a lower-body injury, coach Peter Laviolette said.
“You can’t replace Tom, especially in the playoffs,” Oshie said. “He is one of our most important players."
PENGUINS AT RANGERS, Pittsburgh leads 1-0. Game 2, 7 p.m. EDT (TNT)
Penguins’ third-string goaltender Louis Domingue etched himself into Pittsburgh folklore by coming off the bench in the second overtime after Casey DeSmith exited with a lower-body injury. He then turned aside all 17 shots he faced in the win.
Domingue seems likely to make his first career playoff start Thursday night. Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan described DeSmith as “day-to-day” and All-Star Tristan Jarry is still rehabbing from a foot injury.
Enter Domingue, a 30-year-old journeyman who outdueled Shesterkin on short notice. The Penguins limped down the stretch and had entered the playoffs as underdogs to knock off the Rangers, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
CAPITALS AT PANTHERS, Washington leads 1-0. Game 2, 7:30 p.m. EDT (TBS)
It’s not unheard of for the Presidents’ Trophy winners to lose Game 1 of the playoffs. It doesn’t doom the team that loses the game, doesn’t guarantee the team that wins it a trip to the second round. And that’s likely why Washington’s win over Florida left both sides saying exactly the same thing.
“It’s one game,” Laviolette said.
“It’s one game,” Panthers interim coach Andrew Brunette echoed.
Similar sentiments were probably offered 10 other times in the last 33 seasons, after Presidents’ Trophy winners dropped Game 1. In some cases — for example, 2019 Tampa Bay, which got swept by Columbus (and current Florida goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky) — the outcome was disastrous. In other cases, like Detroit in 2002 and Calgary in 1989, that Game 1 blip was long forgotten a couple months later when those teams wound up hoisting the Stanley Cup.
The Panthers have lost four of their last five games going back to the regular season, matching their worst stretch of the year.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Brunette said. "Now we know what we’re up against, not that we didn’t know before.”
PREDATORS AT AVALANCHE, Colorado leads 1-0. Game 2, 9:30 p.m. EDT (TNT)
On his 32nd birthday, goaltender Darcy Kuemper will try to shut down the Predators. More specifically, Matt Duchene, who had two goals Tuesday amid a chorus of boos. Duchene was a first-round pick by Colorado in 2009 and played for the Avalanche until 2017, when he was traded.
“Leaving here was one of the toughest things I ever had to do," Duchene said. "At the end of the day, this series has nothing to do with me other than the fact that I play for the Nashville Predators. I need to be at my best to try to help this team win."
As for who might be in goal, Predators coach John Hynes has a decision in mind but wants to sleep on it. David Rittich gave up five goals before giving way to Connor Ingram with 4:56 remaining in the first period. Ingram surrendered two goals but also made 30 saves.
STARS AT FLAMES, Calgary leads 1-0. Game 2, 10 p.m. EDT (TBS).
Flames center Elias Lindholm provided the offense and goaltender Jacob Markstrom came up with the big stops. But it was Matthew Tkachuk who revved up the Flames with a fight at the end of the first period.
“Got the crowd into it,” Flames defenseman Erik Gudbranson said.
A concussion took Tkachuk out of a first-round series loss against the Stars two years ago. He is back in full force now.
“I think that not just me, but for the guys that have been here before it’s experiences that were pretty upsetting and frustrating at the time, but the best that we could have done with that happening is you have to use it as motivation, you have to use it as a learning moment because we never want to have that feeling,” Tkachuk said.
Flames coach Darryl Sutter picked up career postseason win No. 90, tying him with Mike Babcock for seventh place on the NHL’s all-time list.
AP Sports Writers Tim Reynolds and Will Graves and The Canadian Press contributed to this report.
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