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"That's our goal, to win the west": Rantanen rediscovers magic as Avs cruise

AJ Haefele Avatar
February 12, 2020

I’m a sucker for love stories. Movies, songs, and apparently hockey ones, too. I’m all about them.

In the last two years, the Avalanche has enjoyed watching the Nathan MacKinnon-Mikko Rantanen connection blossom into something special. It’s been the kind of connection that makes you believe something bigger might be in store down the road.

This year, the rosy-cheeked Cale Makar made it your classic love triangle. It wasn’t exactly Pearl Harbor but the combination of Makar and MacKinnon seemed to dominate the sports headlines.

Given Rantanen’s early-season injury and relatively weak play lately, it made sense that some of the shine had come off of him.

And then, seemingly out of nowhere, Rantanen had the kind of night that reminded everyone why he was being nicknamed “Baby Jagr” in the last 12 months. There were shades of the familiar Rantanen in the team’s win over Minnesota but it was tonight’s 3-0 win over Ottawa that really brought back the Big Moose we’ve all come to expect.

It was MacKinnon that chipped him the perfect pass late in the first period before Rantanen summarily dismissed Ron Hainsey with a clumsy spin move and beat Marcus Hogberg with a world-class backhand to give Colorado a 1-0 lead.

“I tried to spin off the d-man get some room,” Rantanen explained. “[Hainsey] was on me so I tried to surprise the goalie with the backhand. I don’t know if he was ready but this time it was in.”

The moment provided a spark in a Pepsi Center that was almost bored after a first period where Ottawa outshot and outplayed Colorado for stretches.

Rantanen’s goal changed the momentum and the complexion of the game. The Senators spent the rest of the night chasing and the Avalanche locked down their defense as the game wore on.

Just five minutes into the second period, Colorado was leading 1-0 on the scoreboard but was trailing 20-12 in shots on goal. Against a Senators team that averages 29.9 shots per game (24th in the NHL), that’s just way too many opportunities.

From there, Colorado’s defense tightened significantly and gave up just 14 shots on goal in the game’s final 35 minutes.

“I’m really loving our defensive play,” Rantanen said. “We don’t give up too much. Tonight we were sloppy at some points but still we found a way to get a shutout. Goalies are playing really well, too, so that’s good.”

Philipp Grubauer’s strong run of form continued with a 34-shutout, his second of the season and fourth consecutive game giving up less than two goals. But it was the defense in front of him that was the talk of the postgame locker room.

“I think defending is a mental thing,” Rantanen said. “Everybody can do it if you have the right mentality. I think that’s what we’ve been doing the last five games. We don’t give up a lot and that’s how you win games. Our four lines, everybody can score but we have to defend as well. That’s why we’re winning.”

Defense has been problematic for the team’s top line for a while now but with Gabe Landeskog replaced by Andre Burakovsky, they found that old chemistry we’ve seen so often in recent years.

MacKinnon finished with four shots on goal (and eight attempts) and two assists while Rantanen notched the game-winning goal and registered four shots (and five attempts) while also making multiple defenders look bad throughout the evening.

Simply put, they looked back.

And in classic fashion, that line hit the ice with the opposition’s goaltender pulled and instead of allowing the third-period comeback that became the norm for a couple of weeks around New Year’s, they worked their way to an empty-net goal and sealed a drama-free victory.

“That one time after New Year’s we were leading most of the games and we gave up third period goals and lost in overtime or something like that,” Rantanen remembered. “This is different now. We learned from that and we’ll just have to keep going like that. In the third period, we stayed on the gas. We didn’t lay back and defend. You have to attack as well.”

Colorado did just that, outshooting Ottawa 15-11 in the final frame despite coming into the third period with just a one-goal lead.

While they still have 27 games left in the season to worry about, their sight remains set on the same target: Catch the defending champs.

“That’s the goal,” Rantanen said. “We don’t want to look ahead of us. We just focus on our games. That’s our goal. To win the west and get home advantage.”

If the Mikko and MacK love story gets up to the levels of previous years, there could be a Stanley Cup-themed party at the end of this season.

Who wouldn’t love that?

GAME TAKEAWAYS

  • First game without Nazem Kadri, first test for J.T. Compher in his new role as a meaningful engine in the middle of the ice for the Avs. It was a good first effort as I really liked what I saw from JTC tonight. Heavily involved in all action, skated hard and drove plenty of offense. He finished with six shot attempts and won five of his eight faceoffs. That’s rock solid and he looked much more like the players we’ve seen in previous years.
  • The depth of the lineup really stood out as quality to me tonight. The Bellemare line was the only one I thought badly struggled at even strength but all three of the others appeared to be rolling and created dangerous chances throughout.
  • Tyson Jost played a little on the PK tonight (43 whole seconds) but it went well and he actually created a short-handed scoring chance for himself. If Jost is going to continue carving out a role in Colorado’s bottom six, getting him into more roles and accustomed to killing penalties would be a major boon for his overall player profile.
  • In his return to the lineup, Vladislav Kamenev was pretty solid to my eye. I loved the energy he brought to multiple shifts where Ottawa tried to get chippy with him and he gave it right back. He’s a shy kid at times and it tends to carry over to his play on the ice too much but that was encouraging. The more he plays with an edge, the more comfortable the coaching staff will be utilizing him in depth matchups that are typically characterized by physicality.
  • Loved Grubauer tonight. Steady, solid, reliable. Looking more and more like the brick wall that inspired a t-shirt last spring.
  • Val Nichushkin is fun to watch play hockey. I’ll never live down my criticisms of him but being wrong has never been this enjoyable. He just keeps finding ways to contribute and his PP goal tonight was badly needed in order to give Colorado a little breathing room.

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