DENVER (AP) — Nathan MacKinnon is so quick and so forceful on the ice that sometimes there’s a crunching noise that follows him into the offensive end.

It’s a sound that alerts Colorado Avalanche teammate and childhood friend Jonathan Drouin to one thing — a goalie’s in for big trouble. Because there’s no scarier sight than MacKinnon at full speed and crunching up ice.

“That’s what’s unique about his skating, it’s so powerful you can hear it,” Drouin explained. “His playmaking is so elite.”

Like Hart Trophy-worthy elite.

MacKinnon is a favorite to take home the league’s MVP award along with Nikita Kucherov, Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid. MacKinnon — nickname: “Nate Dogg” — has a ferocity that has turned him into a 50-goal scorer this season for the first time in his career. The team follows his lead-by-example approach as the Avalanche pursue a second Stanley Cup championship in three seasons.

“I don’t know what his ceiling is,” said Avalanche coach Jared Bednar, whose team closes out the regular season Thursday against Edmonton before opening the first round of the playoffs in Winnipeg. “But I wouldn’t bet against him on continuing to improve.”

Now that’s a frightful thought for goalies around the league.

MacKinnon currently has 138 points (51 goals, 87 assists), just behind Tampa Bay’s Kucherov (43 goals, 99 assists through Tuesday) in the race for the Art Ross Trophy, which goes to the player who leads the league in scoring in the regular season.

The 28-year-old MacKinnon is closing in on Avalanche/Quebec Nordiques history, too, moving a point away from matching Peter Stastny (1981-82) for the most points in a campaign. MacKinnon also has three hat tricks this season.

He chalks up his success to constantly evolving his game. This season, Bednar notes, MacKinnon found a new level of consistency, which was illustrated by recording a point in each of the first 35 home games this season, the second-longest home scoring streak in NHL history behind only Wayne Gretzky.

“The only way to get better is to do different things,” MacKinnon explained. “I’m always open to new ideas. The growth mindset is just never thinking you’re really there.”

To make Pete DeBoer chuckle, just ask the coach of the Central Division-winning Dallas Stars how to contain MacKinnon.

“Where do you start?” DeBoer asked. “The guy is a bull on ice — speed, power, skill, leadership, tenacity, wants to dominate the game every time he touches the puck. I’ve seen an awful lot of him over the years with different teams and playoffs and things like that, so tremendous amount of respect for him.”

MacKinnon’s emerged as a leader, too, with longtime captain Gabriel Landeskog sidelined for a second straight season by a knee injury. Typically one of the first players on and off the ice during practice, MacKinnon’s presence carries a lot of weight.

His opinion does, too.

“With Nate, there’s lots of communication when it comes to the structure of the game and what we need him to do,” Bednar explained. “And where we have leeway for him to sort of use his instincts a little bit more because they’re elite.”

Goaltender Alexandar Georgiev is grateful that MacKinnon’s on his side. He sees enough of him in practice.

“In the game when he’s coming in at full speed, I imagine it’s a really, really good challenge and maybe not something you want as a goalie,” Georgiev said. “His release is so quick, and he can shoot it from anywhere. He’s a big threat out there. He’s amazing.”

The 6-foot, 200-pound MacKinnon — who counts Sidney Crosby as a good buddy — has taken a franchise-most 404 shots this season. He became the 10th different player since 1959-60 to reach the 400-shot plateau for a season.

“He possesses so many different threats. He can obviously beat you with speed and his power. He’s turned into one of the best playmakers in the league,” Vegas center Jack Eichel said before a game at Ball Arena earlier this season. “He’s one of the best players in the world right now and he’s for sure playing like it. He’s playing out of his mind.”

It’s long been like that, Drouin said. They played alongside each other with the Halifax Mooseheads, where they captured a Memorial Cup in 2012-13. In September, MacKinnon, No. 29 for the Avalanche, had his No. 22 retired by the Mooseheads.

“Growing up, you didn’t want to go against Nate because he was a very, very strong player at a young age,” said Drouin, who has a career-best 56 points (19 goals, 37 assists) in his reunion with MacKinnon this season. “When he’s going full speed, full throttle, it’s scary.”