Contrary to popular belief, it takes a little something more than just three goals in a hockey game to make a person part with their hat. As Matthew Tkachuk’s father reminded us in Calgary last week, celebrating a player’s hat trick is objectively a silly way to purposely inconvenience yourself. It’s a conscious decision that must be made, far more intentional than a simple cheer, to surrender a usually not-cheap piece of apparel just to make a brief show of appreciation alongside other fans, one that won’t be individually noticed amid the hatshower. The number of people who make that choice after the third goal, then, is a direct reflection of the intensity of the emotions stirred, of the primal urgency of a need to celebrate, and of mind-clouding delirium.
That’s why waves and waves of hats cascaded on the ice in Denver with 2:46 remaining in the third period during the Avalanche’s Game 5 against the Blues. Not just because Colorado superstar Nathan MacKinnon scored his third goal of the night, but because he did so in a way and at a time that made you want to jump out of your seat and do something ridiculous. And because it seemed like it’d send the Avs to the conference final. Yeah, about that…
The Avs entered this game looking to formally knock out their underdog opponents, and the first half hour went exactly according to plan. MacKinnon scored his first just four minutes in on a swift counterattack. His second was a pretty dance with Mikko Rantanen that got him from the opposite blue line to the crease in about six seconds, further highlighting the superiority of this Avalanche offense. A Gabe Landeskog deflection on a long Devon Toews attempt in the second period made it 3-0 and seemed to close the book on the series, but the Blues kept writing. A nice shot from Vladimir Tarasenko made their task a little more manageable going into the third. Robert Thomas got another one basically from thin air with 10 minutes left. And Jordan Kyrou took advantage of chaos around the net to tie it with five to go.
The crowd was stunned, until MacKinnon’s brilliance shocked them back into ecstasy. Taking the puck literally as far away from the Blues goal as possible, the first overall pick tasked with redeeming this franchise nine years ago constructed a solo assault that gained momentum with every twitch of his skates. Watching it back, he truly begins to look invincible just as he crosses center ice, outracing one defender and avoiding the useless poke check of another. And before you can even process at normal speed what it took just to get the puck into the offensive zone, MacKinnon’s made a lightning bolt of a deke on a third chump. That move gave him all the space he needed to coolly flip the puck past Ville Husso and deliver what seemed to be an all-time classic of a series-clinching goal.
This is a goal you marvel at, cackle at, shake your head at. And if you’re in the building, you give thanks that you were able to witness it. You could have season tickets for 30 years and never see a goal as good as this one. And to get it in a way that sends your Cup-favorite team to the WCF? I’m sure a lot of fans in Colorado were already imagining telling the story 50 years later of the time they sacrificed their hats for MacKinnon’s legendary game-winner in the Avalanche’s championship season. Headwear is a happily paid admission fee into some small part of history.
And then Thomas and Tyler Bozak scored and the Blues won 5-4 in overtime. So this series goes on.
It could definitely be a lot worse, from a Colorado perspective. They still have two shots to win one game against a team with less talent. I’m assuming that they’re going to manage, though I can’t help but mourn the hats just a little bit. The MacKinnon goal remains awesome, but its larger impact has been completely negated. The Avalanche face the same situation they would have if he’d never scored at all. All the energy, all the joy, all the adrenaline that got so many people chucking their hats now feels like a ghost haunting this squad, trapped and waiting for its true release. The sheer happiness of that moment means it’ll still, ultimately, be a good memory for everyone who paid tribute. Just as long as the Avs don’t choke.