Avalanche’s Rantanen far from just a passenger on one of NHL’s best lines

In an amazing comeback the Calgary Flames battled back from 4-1 down to beat the Colorado Avalanche 6-5.

Those who haven’t watched the Colorado Avalanche the last year or so might be inclined to suggest Mikko Rantanen is probably a passenger – a beneficiary of playing alongside Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog.

They’d be dead wrong.

The towering Finn has a much more accurate way to describe what he is and what he brings.

"I’m more of a modern power forward," he smiled, introducing a new term to the hockey lexicon.

"I don’t feel like I hit that much. I’m maybe a modern power forward like (Winnipeg’s Blake) Wheeler – very skilled but also very strong with the puck."

Indeed, one live viewing of the six-foot-four, 215-pound right winger alongside his star-studded linemates makes it clear why he was named the NHL’s star of the month.

He’s got it all.

Classic power forwards, who lead with their chin, crash goalies and anyone who gets in their way of scoring by the bushel, are all but extinct in today’s game.

Perhaps the new breed Rantanen represents is a somewhat gentler point-getter who uses his size in different ways.

"I think that term makes sense for him – he’s pretty versatile and I think that’s where the ‘modern’ thing comes from," said MacKinnon, whose 18 points is three short of Rantanen’s 21, which leads the NHL.

"He doesn’t just skate up and down the wing and hit guys.

"He’s physical when he’s on the puck. He’s just smart. He plays a really hard game. He does everything really well and is also a really big player. He’s amazing. Hopefully we’re together for a long time. We’re just at the start of our careers."

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It’s a pretty safe bet they’ll remain united alongside Landeskog as they are the league’s second-most potent line so far this season, accounting for 25 of the team’s 46 goals.

A remarkable 19 of those have come five-on-five.

"I think it started two years ago – we played together a little bit when we were really bad," chuckled MacKinnon, last season’s Hart Trophy runner-up whose team made a surprising return to the playoffs last spring.

"Last year we had a good season and obviously we picked up where we left off.

"I think we can play any way. If the rush isn’t going we can play down low and if you give us room off the rush we’re pretty dangerous as well. We’re all over six feet – I’m the smaller one compared to those guys, especially Mikko."

As a 21-year-old, Rantanen had a remarkable breakthrough last year, finishing 16th in league scoring with 84 points. It wasn’t a fluke, nor is he a one-hit wonder as the affable kid who turned 22 this week spent his summer working on his speed.

"I didn’t really think of doing it to keep up with Nate – I just try to get faster and be a better player," said Rantanen, who has just 14 hits this year.

"I think it made a difference, but it’s hard – I don’t think there’s a lot of guys in the league who can keep up with him. (Connor) McDavid is one of them and that’s probably it.

"You kind of have to read the game when you play with him because if you start from the same line there’s not many guys in the league who can win that race. With him you have to stay ahead of the game."

Coach Jared Bednar said Rantanen’s rapid ascent in the hockey world since being drafted 10th overall in 2015 stems from learning to use his size.

"His biggest asset is his strength on the puck," said Bednar, whose club is off to a surprising 7-4-2 start due largely to his goaltending and the dominance of his top line.

"He’s getting more physical offensively, counter hitting guys, protecting pucks and taking pucks to the hard areas in the offensive zone. When he’s on his game he’s a lot to handle. He can change gears and can attack in different ways. Hopefully that’s a tough job for a lot of teams – that’s the way I look at it."

Bednar said the entire line does all the right things off the ice to set themselves up for success on it.

When told of how Rantanen described himself, Bednar was delighted.

"I like his take on it – I think it’s a good way to sum up his role on our team," he beamed.

"Mikko has a high skill set. He can skate and shoot and is a great playmaker. But it all goes away if he’s not driving his legs and using his size.

"That’s why I think he has been so good this year. He’s getting more physical offensively. It has led to him earning more chances and creating more offensively."
Oh, and the notion he might be the third wheel on that line?

"He’s not a passenger at all," said Bednar.

"There have been nights all three of them have taken turns being the driving force. Put them together and it’s a pretty good mix, and on any given night they’re so dangerous. Their hunger, their will and want to succeed is high."

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So are their lofty point totals, which have attracted plenty of attention as Landeskog’s 10 goals and Rantanen’s 21 points set records for October previously held by Joe Sakic. Only twice this year has Rantanen been held off the scoresheet, including Thursday’s 6-5 loss in Calgary.

In the 94 games he’s played since the start of 2017-18, Rantanen ranks eighth with 105 points.

"Our chemistry on our line is building up from last year," said Rantanen, who has five goals and 16 helpers thus far.

"It’s a privilege to play with those guys. Nate is one of the fastest guys in the league and has elite skill in the offensive zone, and Landy is a great two-way player and great goal scorer like we’ve seen so far this season.

"My linemates are helping me a lot and the whole team is playing well, so it’s a good time to be a part of this team."

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