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Mikko Rantanen turning into ‘driving force’ for Avalanche

One of the goals entering the 2018-19 NHL season for Colorado Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar was to push Mikko Rantanen to become a more consistent, impact player. Through seven games, the young Finnish star is leading the NHL in assists with 11 (eight of which are primary) and his team in points with 13, showing that even after a 29-goal, 84-point performance last season there’s more to come.

“He’s a hard-working guy in the off-season and also during the season. I think he’s just scratching the surface of his potential,” Bednar told Pro Hockey Talk recently. “He’s still a young player, both age-wise and from an experience standpoint in the league. I think that he has another level that he can get to, we’re going to try to push him to that level here this year as a coaching staff and demand more of him. He can still become more consistent. But he’s a real receptive guy. He’s a highly-intelligent, highly-skilled player and he’s got great size and strength, too. Sky’s the limit for Mikko.”

The soon-to-be 22-year-old Rantanen has registered a point in all seven Avalanche games this season, including a four-point night against the New Jersey Devils Thursday that saw him have a hand in all three of Gabriel Landeskog’s goals.

At 6-4, 215 lbs., Rantanen is able to use his size to his advantage to fend off opponents and has shown he can handle the responsibilities of playing on the Avs’ top line. Bednar thought he was the team’s best forward against the Calgary Flames and New York Rangers in the past week, describing him as the “driving force” of the trio with Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon.

Rantanen, the No. 10 overall selection in the 2015 NHL Draft, got his first taste of the NHL during a nine-game stint at the start of the 2015-16 season. With a revolving door of linemates, he averaged only 8:57 of ice time and failed to record a point. He was still going through the adjustment phase of transitioning from the big ice sheets in Europe while playing for TPS, his hometown team, to the smaller ones in North America, which force players into making quicker decisions.

Going down to AHL San Antonio and getting 20 minutes a night helped Rantanen greatly. He would score 24 goals and record 60 points in 52 games for the Rampage, a clear sign he was ready for a second shot at the NHL.

The Rantanen-Landeskog-MacKinnon line was put together during the 2016-17 season and it became apparent that the chemistry between the three would give Bednar a weapon to unleash. Rantanen would pot 20 goals and record 39 points that season and add power play duties to his list of responsibilities.

“I think knowing the league, knowing his opponents, pushing himself to be a difference-maker every night and getting more consistent in year two,” Bednar said. “[He] was healthy to start the season, he got dinged up his first year and it gave him a little bit of a slow start, so he was out of the gates right away playing well.”

The jump in production was a result of his linemates and experience. Rantanen’s off-season training routines haven’t changed much since arriving in North America. He’s always worked on improvement his quickness, but most everything else is pretty standard. The one change he did make was going from a 100 flex on his stick to a 90 as he looked for something whippier.

But while Rantanen, who credits Landeskog and Jarome Iginla as big influences during his rookie year, was finding success during his rookie season, his team wasn’t as the Avalanche failed to make the playoffs for the third straight season and finished dead last in the NHL. 

It was a tough balance between personal success and team failure.

“It’s not easy. Young guy, first full year in the league and we won only 22 games, so it’s really hard, actually,” Rantanen said. “I think it’s probably harder for the older guys because as a young guy everything is new. You go to the new rinks, you play first time wherever you go on the road. Everything is kind of new, so you’re still enjoying it even though it’s not nice to lose because then the team attitude is not great.”

Last season, with a year together under their belts, the Avalanche’s top line took off. MacKinnon, Rantanen and Landeskog finished top three on the team in points, with MacKinnon (39-58—97), who ended up a finalist for the Hart Trophy, and Rantanen (29-55—84) posting career years. Landeskog would finish with the second-most goals (25) and points (62) of his career and the team would grab the final wild card spot in the Western Conference.

“Our line was a big reason, we started pretty much right away,” Rantanen said. “We played the whole season together, so I think the chemistry builds up when you play together so long… I was more ready last year mentally than rookie year because you’ve been one year in the league, so you kind of know what to expect.”

Opponents know what kind of handful Rantanen, Landeskog and MacKinnon will be in trying to stop them on a nightly basis. So far, it’s been an uphill battle for other teams with MacKinnon netting seven goals, Rantanen recording 13 points and Landeskog chipping in five goals and eight points. 

The issue confronting other teams is that all three have dynamic skill sets. Landeskog is strong down low in creating chances; MacKinnon can out-skate anyone and has one of the league’s best shots; and Rantanen is a playmaker who can find himself in the right place at the right time.

As Bednar said, there’s still another level that Rantanen can reach, which bodes well for the Avalanche going forward and serves as a warning for the rest of the NHL.

“He’s so big and he’s got good vision. He sees the ice so well,” said MacKinnon. “He’s a great passer and he creates a lot of room for me. He protects the puck. He’s so good down low, so it takes a lot of heat off me. The way he controls the play. I’m lucky to play with him, for sure.”

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

 

Elvis thrives: Merzlikins is on fire for Blue Jackets

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Elvis Merzlikins advanced a bold goal lately: to be more than just a funny name. He is leaving opponents all shook  up absolutely red-hot for the Columbus Blue Jackets right now.

Elvis absolutely hound-dogged shut out the New Jersey Devils in Columbus’ 5-0 on Saturday, and that 41-save performance was far from his first standout evening. Merzlikins generated three shutouts in his last four games, allowing just two goals overall. The Blue Jackets won all four of those games.

(OK, this post includes enough cheesy Elvis jokes … arguably.)

During seven appearances between October and November, the 25-year-old goalie languished with sub-.900 save percentages. Since then, he’s started to take off.

Some “too perfect” moments for Elvis Merzlikins and the Blue Jackets

Maybe Merzlikins made a New Year’s Eve resolution to dominate? Perhaps it was because Elvis asked reporters to leave him alone? Merzlikins suffered only two losses since Dec. 31, winning eight of 10 games.

The lights-out play already makes the story endearing, but there are notes of the surreal. Consider a few facts about his hot streak:

“That’s what you like about him. He’s strong mentally,” Tortorella said after the Jan. 11 Vegas shutout, via Rob Mixer of First Ohio Battery. “He’s a piece of work as far as his personality, which I like. A lot of things have been thrown at him here…but he’s handled himself really well. I’m happy for him.”

  • Merzlikins ended up making it back-to-back shutouts, as he also blanked the Bruins with a 34-save shutout. His three shutouts have upped the ante each time: first 27 saves, then 34, then 41 against the Devils on Saturday.

Tortorella deserves ample credit for creating a cocoon for his goalies, of course.

Regardless, Merzlikins is playing a big role in helping the Blue Jackets stay in the East wild-card races. Here’s hoping that our jokes rise up the charts or we might just need to leave the building.

(Sorry. I’m so, so sorry.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Hat trick helps Ovechkin pass Lemieux, tie Yzerman for ninth on NHL goals list

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An historic week for Alex Ovechkin was capped off with a hat trick Saturday afternoon during a 6-4 win over the Islanders. His three goals pushes him past Mario Lemieux and into ninth place with 692, tying him with Steve Yzerman.

Ovechkin opened the scoring and then passed Mario Lemieux for 10th all-time in the third period as the Capitals mounted their comeback. He ended his day with an empty-netter to seal the win and tie Yzerman. The Islanders led 4-1 entering the third period.

Powered by two consecutive hat tricks, Ovechkin has eight goals in his last three games and 10 in his previous six.

That’s now three consecutive multi-goal games for Ovechkin, the first time he’s done that in his career. Earlier this week he not only passed Teemu Selanne for 11th on the all-time goals list but also hit the 30-goal mark for the 15th time in his career. He, along with Jaromir Jagr and Mike Gartner, are the only players to ever record 15 consecutive 30-goal seasons.

With three goals Saturday — the third time he’s recorded hat tricks in consecutive games — Ovechkin now has 34 on the season as he eyes a ninth 50-goal season. His hat trick was the 26th of his NHL career, tying him with Maurice Richard for eighth all-time.

Next in Ovechkin’s sights? Mark Messier, who finished with 694 goals in his career.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Stars’ Stephen Johns activated after missing almost 22 months

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Dallas Stars activated Stephen Johns before their game Saturday night in Minnesota, clearing the way for the defenseman’s first game in almost 22 months.

Forward Radek Faksa was placed on injured reserve to make room for Johns on the active roster.

Johns has been out since late in the 2017-18 season because of post-traumatic headaches. The Stars have said the condition isn’t related to concussions.

The 27-year-old Johns hasn’t played since March 29, 2018, at the Wild. It was the last of a career-high 75 games in his third NHL season. Johns missed the last five games that year before sitting out all of last season as headaches persisted.

He played two games on a conditioning assignment with the Texas Stars of the AHL before rejoining Dallas on Thursday.

The return of Johns could coincide with the Stars’ first game without defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The 20-year-old standout left Thursday’s loss to Buffalo with an upper-body injury.

Johns made his debut for Dallas late in the 2014-15 season and played in all 13 of the team’s playoff games as a rookie. He has 13 goals, 15 assists and 306 blocked shots in 150 career regular-season games.

Panthers down another goalie, injured Driedger to miss weeks

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SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Florida goalie Chris Driedger will miss several weeks with what’s believed to be a groin injury, the latest health issue at that position for the Panthers.

The Panthers announced the diagnosis Saturday, calling it a lower-body injury.

Driedger was hurt midway through the first period of the Panthers’ 4-3 win over the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday. He is 5-2-0 in nine appearances for Florida this season, with a 2.48 GAA.

The Panthers have also been without goalie Sergei Bobrovsky for much of January while he recovers from an upper-body injury.

Florida begins a stretch of six consecutive road games Saturday in Detroit. That six-game run also includes the All-Star break and the Panthers’ bye week.