Rantanen, Kadri spur on Avalanche as MacKinnon recovers
Riddled with injuries and suffering from spotty play, the Colorado Avalanche stumbled out of the gate to a 1-3-0 start. Some of their struggles were understandable; few teams would look sharp without defensemen Cale Makar, Devon Toews and Sam Girard and forward Valeri Nichushkin — all who missed time early in the season.
Captain Gabe Landeskog got himself suspended in the season-opener, and no one has any idea when backup goaltender Pavel Francouz will ever play again. It’s all added up to a bumpy road for the Avalanche, one that only got bumpier when the team lost all-world center Nathan MacKinnon to a lower-body injury that will likely keep him out for the rest of November.
The excuses were easy to find, but Mikko Rantanen wasn’t having any of them.
“Sometimes, it seems like we’re kind of effortless. I don’t know, maybe it’s just mental. I don’t think it’s physical,” Rantanen said after the Avalanche fell to 4-5-1 after a second-consecutive loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Nov. 6. “That’s two games in a row we lose after having a lead in the third period. This is not how you play hockey; time to look in the mirror here. It’s just effort.”
The 6-foot-4 Rantanen talked big, calling out an Avalanche team that had seemed to start feeling sorry for itself. Then, he backed it up.
Three games later, the Avalanche have gone 3-0-0, outscoring their opponents 17-5 and vaulting themselves back over .500 following Wednesday’s 4-2 victory in Vancouver; one in which Colorado put the game away in that previously problematic third period by out-skating, out-defending, and outscoring the Canucks 3-1 in the final frame.
Now 7-5-1 and only six points out of first place in the Central division with at least two games in hand over every other team ahead of them, the Avalanche look like a sleeping giant that’s awakening from a too-long slumber.
Rantanen, with a goal and two assists on Wednesday, had six points (three goals and three assists) during the three-game span — and in Wednesday’s game, he did so as the center on the top line; taking MacKinnon’s spot out of necessity, and looking as dominant there as he has on the wing. On the season, Rantanen’s collected 11 points in 10 games, good for third on the team and tied for the lead in goals with six.
He’s had help from a surprising source. At the end of last season, Nazem Kadri was on the bench; relegated there by his own hand thanks to an ugly, late-game hit on the St. Louis Blues’ Justin Faulk that earned him an eight-game, playoff suspension. The Avalanche didn’t last long enough afterwards for Kadri to finish serving it, leading to an offseason filled with questions. Would the Avalanche trade him away? Expose him to the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft? The answer was neither — the organization and his teammates rallied around him, and Kadri has returned renewed; seemingly aware that he was granted a new lease on life with a Stanley Cup contender that could have easily thrown him overboard.
Kadri, the first star in Wednesday’s win with a goal and two assists, has been a man possessed on the ice this season — in a good way. Now on a seven-game point streak that has seen him rack up a whopping 13 points (four goals and nine assists), Kadri finds himself leading the Avalanche and tied for 13th in the entire NHL in scoring with the Chicago Blackhawks’ Patrick Kane at 17 points; not exactly the lofty company that most expected to find the rough-and-tumble center in. Kadri, who’s on pace for what would easily be a career-high, 107-point season (his best is 61, set with Toronto in 2016-17), explained what’s changed about the Avalanche since Rantanen put the club on notice.
“The guys that we have out there have been communicating a lot and just trying to dot our I’s and cross our T’s; just trying to execute at a high level,” he said on Wednesday. “We’ve got the skill set out there; it’s just about executing the game plan.”
The Avs aren’t out of the wilderness just yet; MacKinnon, Calder candidate defenseman Bowen Byram and veteran forward J.T. Compher remain out, and not all of their players have completely returned to form following their injuries. But now, the Avalanche know they have enough to weather the storm until it subsides, and with a favorable slate in front of them to finish the month, Colorado’s December might be remembered as the month when the Avalanche finally started to bury the competition.
Shawn Drotar is the on-air host of “Sandy and Shawn;” weeknights from 9p-midnight on 104.3 The Fan.