Penguins finish brief road swing with tough game in Colorado

Nathan MacKinnon, like every boy his age growing up in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, idolized the hometown hero Sidney Crosby. Now as an NHL player and a fellow No. 1 overall pick, the two have become great friends.

They work out together in the summer, they’ve made commercials together and they play on the same Canadian National teams. But two times a season they are foes, and one of those times is Wednesday night when Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins visit the Colorado Avalanche.

The friendship will be put on hold for a few hours while both are trying to beat each other. And they won’t have much time to socialize. Both teams played road games Tuesday night, with the Avalanche beating Nashville 3-2 and Pittsburgh winning 4-3 at Winnipeg.

Colorado has won five straight and is 7-0-1 in its last eight games.

Crosby, 31, is eight years older than MacKinnon and has something the younger Cole Harbour player desires — titles. The Penguins have won three Stanley Cups in 13-plus seasons and has been to four Cup finals.

MacKinnon hasn’t been out of the first round in the two times Colorado has reached the playoffs in his first five seasons, and he admires the way his friend still competes.

“He never gets comfortable,” MacKinnon once said of Crosby. “He’s always trying new things to get better and working so hard. It’s contagious. If a guy like that is trying to get better every day than anybody can.”

MacKinnon, at least through the first quarter of this season, has been the more productive player than Crosby. He entered Tuesday second in the NHL in scoring with 37 points — three behind linemate Mikko Rantanen — and has more goals (17-10) and assists (20-15) than Crosby.

MacKinnon has come on strong since last November after Colorado (14-6-4) traded Matt Duchene to Ottawa, and he has not stopped producing.

The Avalanche will need his line to play well to beat the Penguins (10-8-5). Although Pittsburgh has struggled out of the gate it has a dangerous offense now that Crosby has returned from an upper-body injury that cost him three games earlier this month.

Crosby’s injury is one of many Pittsburgh has dealt with. Goaltender Matt Murray, center Matt Cullen and defenseman Justin Schultz are going to be out for an extended time but center Derek Grant, who missed two straight games with an undisclosed injury before returning to score a tying goal in the third period against the Jets.

“I just fell funny,” Grant said, describing how his injury happened to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on Monday. “Something I just got to play through, I think, but I felt good out there today.”

The Avalanche have had a few injuries, the latest being their top-scoring defenseman Tyson Barrie sitting out Tuesday with a lower-body injury. Mark Barberio played in his place.

The one area Colorado has addressed is defense, and one reason is the signing of Ian Cole in the summer. Cole is averaging just over 20 minutes of ice time this season and brings championship experience to the young Avalanche. He won his titles with Pittsburgh in 2016 and 2017 and played parts of two other seasons with the Penguins.

Even with Colorado reaching the playoffs last season, having someone who has played deep into the postseason helps.

“The playoffs are more of a feel thing, more of an intensity thing, something where every battle matters and every decision matters,” Cole told The Denver Post. “Every puck play matters. And that doesn’t just apply to the playoffs — if we try to instill that mindset over the course of the season, we’ll have a better record, a better team and when we get to the playoffs, we’ll be more ready to jump right in.”