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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.

 

The Buzzer: Schwartz helps Blues keep pace; Rinne, Rask pick up shutouts

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Three stars

1. Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues

There’s a real race for the third spot in the Central Division down the stretch here, with the Blues leading the Dallas Stars by two points for the spot.

Both teams won on Tuesday, and Schwartz led the way for the Blues, scoring a hat trick en route to a 7-2 thrashing of the Edmonton Oilers. Schwartz opened the game’s scoring and then scored in the second and a late third-period marker on the power play to complete his fourth career hatty.

Schwartz hasn’t had the season he would have hope after putting up 24 goals and 59 points last season. He’s now up to 10 tallies this year and 34 points after also grabbing an assist for a four-point night.

2. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators

The Predators are in tough to try and win another Central Division crown. They’re one point back of the Winnipeg Jets but the Jets have two games in hand. Basically, they need to win out and hope for some help.

Part of that help will come from within, and Rinne was on point in the crease on Tuesday against the Toronto Maple Leafs, stopping all 22 shots he saw. It’s the second time this season that Rinne has blanked the Leafs.

The Preds neutered the Maple Leafs high-powered offense in this one as the Predators nursed a one-goal lead for most of the game.

3. Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins

The Bruins put in a complete effort against the Islanders in this one, and Rask only saw 13 shots come his way. But he stopped all 13 to snap a two-game stretch where he was less than the stellar goaltender that he had been. And sometimes those games where you barely see action can be the hardest.

Rask now has four shutouts on the season and 25 wins. He started the season off horribly and likely would have been in the Vezina conversation if not for that. Still, a focused — and well-rested — Rask is exactly what the Bruins need heading into the playoffs.

Highlights of the night

Hurricanes go duck hunting:

Here’s how to make Seth Jones look silly:

Simmons ends drought, scores first with Predators:

Factoids

Scores

Bruins 5, Islanders 0
Red Wings 3, Rangers 2
Canadiens 3, Flyers 1
Hurricanes 3, Penguins 2 (SO)
Capitals 4, Devils 1
Blues 7, Oilers 2
Predators 3, Maple Leafs 0
Avalanche 3, Wild 1
Stars 4, Panthers 2
Flames 4, Blue Jackets 2


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Oilers’ Lucic ejected after dangerous cross-check to Blues’ Sundqvist

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Milan Lucic is paid a lot of money for a lot of nothing these days, but he may have some of his $6 million per season salary taken away from him after a nasty cross-check on Tuesday night against the St. Louis Blues.

With the Blues holding a 6-2 lead with just over five minutes left in the third period — garbage time, as they say — Lucic made his presence felt as he drilled Oskar Sundvist from behind long after he had shot the puck on Anthony Stolarz.

The needless hit sent Sundqvist flying into the boards, who needed some assistance from the trainers before leaving the game. He did not return after favoring his right arm as he skated off hunched over.

Lucic was assessed a five-minute major for cross-checking and given a game misconduct on the play. The senselessness of the hit is likely to land him in hot water with the NHL, too.

The Oilers still have four more years of this to endure, too.

Meanwhile, it’s not the first time this season (if you count preseason games) that Sundqvist has been on the receiving end of a bone-headed and dirty hit.

Tom Wilson got the book thrown at him for this awful shot.

Earlier in the game, Zack Kassian and Patrick Maroon — good friends — went toe-to-toe in a friendship-testing heavyweight tilt.

There were some haymakers thrown in this one.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Capitals prepare for Lightning test with warm-up win against Devils

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The Washington Capitals didn’t have to expend a lot of energy on Tuesday night, and that’s a good thing.

Washington will play the second half of a back to back against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday (live on NBCSN), so the New Jersey Devils were the warmup, and Washington made quick work of them in a 4-1 win.

Washington led just 2:52 into the first period before giving up a goal with one second left in the frame. The late adversity didn’t phase the defending Stanley Cup winners, however. Brett Connolly regained the lead 5:57 into the second with his 20th (which stood as the eventual game-winner) and Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson scored a 1:12 apart to ice the game with a period to play.

The rest of the game was a cure for insomnia.

Pheonix Copley got the start in this one as the Caps rested Braden Holtby for Wednesday’s big game. Copley made 19 saves for his sixth straight win. He barely looked like he broke a sweat.

With the New York Islanders losing 5-0 to the Boston Bruins, the Capitals moved two points ahead of their Metropolitan Division rivals for first place. The Caps have won nine of their past 11 as they try to win another division title.

Much of the game was centered around Alex Ovechkin and if he’d hit 50 on the night.

He came into the game with 48 career goals and faced a mouthwatering matchup against a poor Devils team. But Ovi was held at bay, collecting just an assist in the game on a nice dish to Wilson.

The Devils have had a rough March thus far.

They’ve won just twice and have been shutout three times as the race for Jack Hughes (or Kaapo Kakko) continues for them. They’re on 63 points, fifth worst in the NHL and entered Tuesday with a 9.5 percent chance of taking down the first pick on April 9’s NHL Draft Lottery.

Kenny Agostino, who scored New Jersey’s lone goal, now has six points in his past six games — in a bright spot in a lot of darkness this season for the Devils.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Fight involving Bruins’ Chara plays out exactly as one might expect

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Ever try to punch a giraffe in the face? Me neither, but New York Islanders forward Matt Martin has a story to tell.

Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara is a man few want to fight. He towers over everyone in the NHL and his reach is close enough to double that of his nearest opponent that the best you can often open for is a good shadow boxing practice because the odds of connecting are so terribly low.

Martin got exactly that when he and Chara dropped the glove just four seconds into the second period off the opening faceoff.

The two exchanged rights before Chara threw a nasty, downward-directed bomb that caught Martin flush, knocking him to the ground. To Martin’s credit, he bounced back up and tried in vain to hit Chara. He had no such luck.

Chara ended the scrap by basically stiff-arming Martin to the ground followed by the congratulatory pat on the back from the 6-foot-9 man.

It’s respectable that Martin wanted to try and give his team a boost, although they were only down 1-0 at that point of the game. Ambitious, but respectable.

Chara, meanwhile, just turned 42 on Monday.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck